Questions raised over independence of panel that found glyphosate safe

Two members of an expert panel which says glyphosate residues on food do not cause cancer in humans are also part of a group which has received over £1m of funding from pesticide companies.

Glyphosate, the world's most widely used weedkiller, is under scrutiny. Image: Pixabay
Glyphosate, the world's most widely used weedkiller, is under scrutiny. Image: Pixabay

The report (PDF), produced jointly by the UN's Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), was published on 17 May. The Joint FAO-WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (known as JMPR) found glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans when ingested in food at normal exposure levels.

But anti-pesticide campaigners have queried the independence of two members of the FAO-WHO panel. Professor Alan Boobis, who chaired the panel, is also vice-president of the European branch of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), while panel co-chair Angelo Moretto is also on the board of ILSI's Health and Environmental Sciences Institute.

In 2012 ILSI received £500,000 from Monsanto, which makes the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup, and another £528,500 from Croplife International, made up of chemical companies including Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and Monsanto, according to a public records request by the US Right to Know campaign.

Campaigners including Greenpeace say this puts the independence of the JMPR report into question. The report was published just days before European Commission experts were due to decide whether to relicense the chemical.

In response to questions over Boobis and Moretto's independence, Monsanto spokesperson Lindsey Dario said: "JMPR has a clear policy that screens for and prevents conflicts of interest by meeting participants. The JMPR's conclusion is consistent with the conclusions reached in the past year by the European Food Safety Agency, the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Authority, the Food Safety Council of Japan and the U.S. EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee. No agency that has ever conducted a thorough assessment on glyphosate considers it to be a carcinogen.

According to ILSI's ethics statement, at least 50 per cent of ILSI's trustees must be from the public sector - primarily academics - and no trustees are paid for their time. According to the institute's ethics documents (PDF), "ensuring balance of perspectives is the most appropriate way to ensure that the impact of any potential conflict of interest or bias is minimized and does not exert an undue influence on the scientific process".

WHO official Dr Philippe Verger, who was secretary of the UN panel, told the Guardian ILSI is not an independent body but exists to "create a space for discussion and interaction between the private a public sectors. ILSI’s focus is not to discuss topics of economic interest for individual companies. It is more of a forum".

When the FAO-WHO report was released Monsanto said it was "not surprised" by its conclusion.

"We welcome this rigorous assessment of glyphosate by another program of the WHO, which is further evidence that this important herbicide does not cause cancer," said Phil Miller, Monsanto’s vice president for global regulatory and government affairs.

"IARC’s classification was inappropriate and inconsistent with the science on glyphosate. Based on the overwhelming weight of evidence, the JMPR has reaffirmed the findings of regulatory agencies around the world that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a cancer risk."

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