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Monsanto’s Influence on the Glyphosate Debate

November 7 is election day in the U.S this year. On November 6, the European Union is holding a vote of their own. That’s the deadline for representatives from their 28 member countries to decide whether to ban or reauthorize the herbicide glyphosate.

Theoretically, this means that 28 voices – one for each country – will be making a decision that impacts the 510 million people living in the EU. In reality, a 29th party has inserted itself into this decision. Monsanto, the global corporation that first patented glyphosate and would have the most to lose if it were banned, has been writing and funding the very research that is supposed to guide the EU in its decision.

The upcoming vote has been more than two years in the making. The decision to relicense or ban glyphosate, the most commonly used pesticide in the world, was originally slated for 2015, but has been continually delayed as new information about the chemical’s safety has emerged.

First, in March 2015, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen. In response to that declaration, various national and intergovernmental regulators have compiled their own reports about the safety of glyphosate – not all of them coming to the same conclusion.

In November 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans” and six months later, the WHO Core Assessment Group on Pesticides made the same declaration. Other groups, meanwhile, support IARC’s original assessment. Six countries in the Middle East have banned glyphosate in the last year, and a number of government agencies have released their own studies that question the safety of glyphosate, including in France, Sweden, and here in the United States.

Some of this disagreement is based on the differing standards used to define what is a “carcinogen,” with some arguing that the presence of some evidence linking a substance to cancer is enough to earn the label and take action to protect the public, and others insisting on higher levels of proof. But some may also be the result of Monsanto’s influence on the process.

Large sections of the EFSA report that defended the safety of glyphosate were copied and pasted directly from the application Monsanto submitted when the company first applied to renew its license for the pesticide. This is not the first time that content produced by Monsanto has found its way into supposedly neutral evaluations of its products. Monsanto has ghostwritten reviews of its own products and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to supposedly independent reviewers. These reviews have unsurprisingly tended to be confident about glyphosate’s safety.

On the other side, the International Society of Doctors for the Environment, an environmental NGO representing doctors from more than 25 countries, wrote a letter to the president of the European Parliament that supported IARC’s conclusion that glyphosate is carcinogenic and asked for a permanent ban of this chemical throughout the EU. European citizens have weighed in on the issue as well; as of June 2017, more than one million people had signed a petition asking for a European glyphosate ban.

The upcoming vote is going to affect millions of Europeans: farmers who may need to change their farming practices, doctors who are concerned about increased cancer rates among their patients, and people who are worried about the glyphosate in their food and water supply. People around the world will be watching the European Union’s decision. Let’s hope that decision is based on sound science and the public’s will, not Monsanto’s self-interested perspective.

Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr licensed under CC 2.0