A REPORT from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialised cancer research arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO) into the safety of organophosphate herbicides and insecticides has assessed glyphosate as being ‘probably carcinogenic’.
The finding could have a big impact on Australian agriculture if there is sufficient consumer backlash to put pressure on Australia’s regulatory authority into chemical registrations, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), to review its standards for glyphosate use.
Glyphosate is by far and away the most important agricultural herbicide in the nation.
The IARC found, by going through existing research conducted on glyphosate since 2001, that there was limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans in terms of the development of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
In addition, it said there was convincing evidence that glyphosate can also cause cancer in laboratory animals, leading to its overall statement that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic.
Report an ‘outrage’
The report has drawn a stinging response from both the plant protection industry and farmers alike.
Even Monsanto, the patent holder for Roundup, the most popular glyphosate product, which is normally measured in its response to critics, called the report an ‘outrage’.
“We are outraged with this assessment,” said Robb Fraley, American-based chief technology officer with the biotech giant.
“This conclusion is inconsistent with the decades of ongoing comprehensive safety reviews by the leading regulatory authorities around the world that have concluded all labelled uses of glyphosate are safe for human health,” Dr Fraley said.
He accused IARC of a selective use of data.
“This result was reached by selective ‘cherry picking’ of data and is a clear example of agenda-driven bias.”
Andrew Weidemann, chairman of Grain Producers Australia (GPA), said he was disappointed the findings on the pesticides were released on their own.
“There have been findings that suggest many common household products have carcinogenic properties.
“We have research that suggests sugar or liquorice can be carcinogenic, so the results of this research need to be taken in context.”
Mr Weidemann said research showed glyphosate was safe and added it was critical in allowing the world to produce enough food.
“The reality is without glyphosate, we would have a lot more problems with world hunger.
“Farmers need this technology and others like it to help keep feeding the world.”
However, Scott Kinnear, director of the Safe Food Foundation, said the finding reinforced the message that the world needed to reassess its view of glyphosate as a relatively benign product in terms of its impact on human health.
“This finding carries on from various other studies that have found glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor,” Mr Kinnear said.
“The worrying thing is that we are finding issues with glyphosate at exposure rates much less than those currently allowed.”
Matthew Cossey, chief executive at CropLife Australia, the plant technology industry’s peak body, said IARC had found other natural substances, such as coffee and aloe vera, to be carcinogenic.
He said releasing the findings on pesticides on their own was unnecessarily alarmist.
“Given that the IARC have ranked the pesticides in the same categories as coffee and aloe vera, which many of us are exposed to or consume every day, reflects the inadequate and misleading nature of its method of assessment.”
But Mr Kinnear said this was not a fair comparison.
“When people drink coffee or use aloe vera, they can make their own decision about doing so, but with glyphosate it is present in their food whether they want it there or not.”
Mr Cossey said it was important people knew the IARC findings did not come on the back of any new research.
“It is important to note that the IARC has not undertaken or considered any new research or data that has not previously been assessed by expert regulators around the world.
He also said the results contradicted that of other bodies under the auspices of WHO, such as the Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), which is administered jointly by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation WHO.
The IARC has no regulatory authority and its findings do not impact glyphosate’s label, current registration or use in Australia, however, the findings have caused concern among consumers.
Other pesticides mentioned in the IARC report include the insecticides diazinon and malathion, which were both found to be ‘probably carcinogenic’, and tetrachlorvinphos and parathion, which were found to be ‘potentially carcinogenic’.