IARC scientists defend glyphosate cancer ranking

The World Health Organisation (WHO) agency that labelled the world’s most widely used herbicide a probable cause of cancer in humans has hit back after the agrichemical industry responded with a savage attack on its science and funding.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) panel of scientists made the evaluation on glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand, in March last year. The IARC ranking prompted British union federation the TUC to call on safety reps to ensure members were not exposed to the pesticide. The global farming union IUF called for a ban.

For its part, CropLife America, the industry’s lobbying group, demanded that US authorities repudiate the IARC ranking and cut funding to the UN agency. A 24 October 2016 statement from the group said it “welcomes the interests of a variety of Congressional committees that may provide oversight on all manner of pesticide policy matters ─ including the interest shown about IARC funding.”

Monsanto labelled the IARC findings as “junk science,” and claimed the IARC members are part of an “unelected, undemocratic, foreign body.”

The attack came as a surprise to the IARC working group, which is comprised of recognised independent experts from scientific agencies around the world, including the US. Aaron Blair, a scientist emeritus at the US National Cancer Institute, served as chair of the IARC team.

Australian epidemiologist Lin Fritschi, a member of the IARC working group, said the team’s work was solid and the industry attacks on the team’s credibility are unwarranted. “I definitely wasn’t expecting anything at all,” said Fritschi, who specialises in the occupational causes of cancer.

“We were independent and just looked at the science. We had strict rules on what was admissible and came to a conclusion based on that evidence. We made the right decision based on the evidence.”

Fritschi, a distinguished professor at Curtin University in Australia, added: “The people most at risk are people who use glyphosate a lot, such as farmers and gardeners, and they are the ones who should try and reduce their use.”

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