A Tale of Two WHO Organizations
If an organization composed of experts concludes that a substance causes cancer, that assessment seems important. If those experts were convened by an international organization like the United Nations or the World Health Organization, that conclusion would appear even more authoritative. But if it turns out that the conclusions were false and based on misleading data, what is the public to believe? How do regulators respond?
It’s not a difficult scenario to envision, particularly as it is currently playing out based on the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)’s suspect determination that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic.”
An essential component of IARC’s mission is its Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans Program, an evaluation of the relative carcinogenicity of various substances. Yet the IARC Monograph Program is heavily slanted to find that any substance it studies is carcinogenic. Since the Program began in 1971, IARC has evaluated nearly 1,000 substances and has found only one substance to be not possibly or probably carcinogenic – instead issuing monographs that common substances such as coffee and red meat may cause cancer.
In a finding clearly out of line with the scientific community, IARC released its glyphosate monograph (2015), ruling that the substance is probably carcinogenic. Numerous independent assessments have verified glyphosate’s safety to consumers. Other studies have refuted IARC’s results, showing that IARC’s deliberately chosen methodology pre-determined its finding that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. IARC’s investigation omitted an analysis of risk and exposure under real-world conditions. An October 2017 Reuters exposé showed that IARC purposely omitted non-carcinogenic findings from its final monograph, and systematically substituted data that showed no cancer link with data that supported a finding of carcinogenicity. A 2016 study by Dr. David Eastmond presented at the Toxicology Forum compared IARC’s methodology with that of the Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), an expert ad hoc body administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization, and found that the differing methodologies employed by each organization led to profoundly divergent conclusions.
Nevertheless, IARC’s finding has an enormous impact on national regulations and on the broader public debate that informs policymaking. Because of IARC’s irresponsible glyphosate review, multiple countries have imposed restrictions on the chemical’s use. Closer to home, California increased restrictions on the use of the agro-chemical, impacting the country’s largest agricultural market. Moreover, the chemical and its producers have been demonized in the court of public opinion in a discussion based more on emotion than fact.
Thankfully, cooler heads sometimes prevail. The EU’s European Food Safety Commission, citing other reputable studies and deliberative bodies, recently re-approved glyphosate’s usage in member states for the next five years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December 2017 reaffirmed that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic, nor does it cause any other “meaningful risks to human health.” A group of U.S. attorneys general, hailing from states ranging from Idaho to Louisiana, have recently weighed in on an important lawsuit against California’s non-science-based glyphosate restrictions. And IARC’s activities have come under the microscope: IARC has been asked to comment on its methodologies by members of the U.S. Congress and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Good public policy decisions, such as this, must be based on rigorous analysis and review of a chemical’s actual impact, not its feared effects. Scientists must use all available evidence, not cherry-pick evidence that support their views. And policymakers must rely on experts and evidence, not public opinion, to determine how best to regulate.
For international organizations like the U.N., WHO, FAO, and IARC, great power comes with great responsibility. Their very status gives them great power to influence public debate, but they must be even more careful in basing reports and analysis that can directly impact national regulations on facts, not polls. As the glyphosate example illustrates clearly, a questionable report from an organization like IARC can create a tidal wave of regulation and misinformation that takes years to fix.
This is why everyone – government officials, consumers, and business groups like Engaging America’s Global Leadership (EAGL) – must demand transparency and accountability from international organizations such as IARC. Greater transparency at international organizations allows for thorough analysis, yielding rational and informed policy positions that protect the public. Greater accountability to member states, like the United States, ensures that these organizations set priorities and develop work programs that advance global policy goals with broad geographic support.
About CropLife America (CLA)
CropLife America (CLA) is the national trade association that represents the manufacturers, formulators and distributors of pesticides. CLA’s member companies produce, sell and distribute virtually all the vital and necessary crop protection and biotechnology products used by farmers, ranchers and landowners.