An academic journal has conceded that agrochemicals giant Monsanto didn’t fully disclose its involvement in published research that claimed Roundup, the world’s best selling herbicide, is safe. The ‘Expression of Concern’ issued by Critical Reviews in Toxicology, a journal that analyses health risks of chemicals, may bolster arguments that Monsanto, acquired by Bayer this year, ghost-wrote safety reviews.
Monsanto has defended the independence of the 2016 review of glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient. However, on 26 September 2018 the publisher of Critical Reviews in Toxicology said it was issuing the Expression of Concern about four papers published in a 2016 supplement because the authors “have been unable to provide an adequate explanation to why the required level of transparency was not met on first submission.”
Bayer faces litigation by more than 9,500 plaintiffs in the US, mostly farmers, who blame exposure to glyphosate for non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), with an NHL cancer court settlement to a former school groundsman this year spurring renewed calls for a ban.
An assessment determining there was a ‘probable’ cancer association, published in a 20 March 2015 Lancet Oncology paper prepared by an International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) working group, had already led to an industry backlash. Some consider the four Critical Reviews in Toxicology papers first published online in September 2016 were intended to be part of Monsanto’s armoury in a glyphosate product defence campaign that has also seen threats to IARC’s funding.
The industry attack prompted a January 2018 rebuttal from IARC’s director, running to 10 pages, saying the criticism of the agency was motivated by “major financial interests” and lambasting the “unprecedented, coordinated efforts to undermine the evaluation, the program and the organization.” It added: “The attacks have largely originated from the agro-chemical industry and associated media outlets.”
One of the papers subject to the Expression of Concern spelled out the scientists’ contention that “the data do not support IARC’s conclusion that glyphosate is a ‘probable human carcinogen’ and, consistent with previous regulatory assessments, further concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans.”
However, the journal’s expression of concern came after it was revealed the initial disclosure statement made by the authors indicated Monsanto’s involvement was limited to paying a consulting firm to develop the journal supplement entitled ‘An Independent Review of the Carcinogenic Potential of Glyphosate.’ It declared that no Monsanto employees or attorneys reviewed the manuscripts submitted to the journal.
In fact, the company had been heavily involved in preparation of the papers. Internal emails filed in litigation revealed that Monsanto scientists played a significant role in organising, reviewing and editing article drafts. Elaine Devine, a spokesperson for Critical Reviews in Toxicology, said the Expression of Concern “will remain on the scholarly record.”
A co-author of two of the four criticised studies, Douglas L Weed, has previously rallied to the defence of the petrochemicals industry, after research linked low level exposures to benzene to Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, the same cancer now linked to glyphosate . Weed was criticised for failing to make clear that CONservation of Clean Air and Water in Europe (Concawe), which provided financial support for his paper, is a research and lobbying organisation wholly financed by oil refinery companies.
This is not the first time Critical Reviews in Toxicology’s conflict of interest processes have been questioned. The authors of a 2013 paper claiming chrysotile asbestos presents a low risk to health failed to acknowledge their study was bankrolled by the global asbestos industry. Lab rats, a 2013 investigation by Hazards magazine, said this paper provided the asbestos industry with “an opportunity for another product defence road trip.”
- Expression of Concern, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 26 September 2018.
- Williams GM, Aardema M, Acquavella J, Berry SC, Brusick D, Burns MM, de Camargo JLV, Garabrant D, Greim H, Kier LD, Kirkland DJ, Marsh G, Solomon KR, Sorahan T, Roberts A, Weed DL. A review of the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate by four independent expert panels and comparison to the IARC assessment, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, volume 46 (supplement 1), pages 3-20, September 2016.
- D Bernstein and others. Health risk of chrysotile revisited, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, volume 43, number 2, pages 154-183, 2013.