Another Left-Wing Science Scandal

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in RoundUp, the most widely used herbicide in the world. Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide, meaning it will kill just about any plant. Since it would kill the crop as well as the weeds, for quite a few years it couldn’t be used over the top of an emerging crop. Instead, its use was restricted to lower-value burndown situations, where weeds in a field would be killed prior to planting, or, e.g., to keep down weeds on railroad rights of way.

The first commercially successful genetic modification, carried out by Monsanto, which owned the patents on glyphosate, was to make plants tolerant of glyphosate. A GMO variety, commonly referred to as “RoundUp Ready,” would survive a glyphosate application while the weeds in the field would die. The development of glyphosate tolerant crops (soybeans, corn, cotton, eventually others) was a marvel: farmers could apply RoundUp over the top of crops, killing weeds while the crop was unaffected. The result was cheaper food and clothing.

As a bonus, glyphosate was remarkably benign from an environmental standpoint. In general, insecticides are toxic to humans because humans are quite a bit like bugs. Herbicides, on the other hand, are generally not very toxic to humans, because we aren’t a lot like plants. But even in this context, glyphosate stood out as a harmless chemical. It targets an enzyme that is found in plants, but not in humans or animals. Moreover, glyphosate breaks down easily and does not persist in the environment. It is pretty much the perfect herbicide (until resistance starts to develop, but that’s another story).

This sounds like a win-win situation–cheaper food, better health, longer lifespans–but some people irrationally hate genetically modified crops, even though the modification–in this case, making the corn or soybean plant tolerant of glyphosate–has nothing to do with its nutritional value. After decades of world-wide experience with glyphosate, it was accepted that the product was safe. So it was a bombshell when the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared, in March 2015, that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic,” based on tests on rodents.

Hundreds of cancer patients promptly sued Monsanto, claiming the company had concealed the danger of carcinogenicity, notwithstanding the fact that it would be hard to find a farmer who hadn’t been exposed to glyphosate. The European Union said it would consider IARC’s finding when deciding whether to continue to allow glyphosate to be used in Europe. “Environmentalists” had scored a major coup.

But the whole thing turned out to be a fraud. Reuters has investigated, aided by access to deposition testimony in one or more of the lawsuits against Monsanto, which evidently was not subject to a protective order. Briefly put, the author of the IARC’s carcinogenicity study, Aaron Blair, an epidemiologist from the U.S. National Cancer Institute, covered up his own research showing that exposure to glyphosate did not lead to a higher incidence of cancer in humans. The story, as reported by Reuters, is astonishing:

Previously unreported court documents reviewed by Reuters from an ongoing U.S. legal case against Monsanto show that Blair knew the unpublished research found no evidence of a link between glyphosate and cancer. In a sworn deposition given in March this year in connection with the case, Blair also said the data would have altered IARC’s analysis.

But the data were not considered by IARC because including them would have made the report too long. Or something. You can read the Reuters story, or even this surprisingly sane Mother Jones article, for the details.

It seems obvious that this is another case where left-wing “scientists” concealed data that would have refuted their theory–here, that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic.* Remarkably, despite exposure of the scandal, IARC “stands by its findings.” Politics above all.

Given the many scandals that have emerged in recent years, it is reasonable to ask: can liberals be trusted to do science? Unless and until they commit themselves to fundamental reform, something that is not in prospect, my answer is No.

*A footnote: roughly half of all of the substances on Earth are carcinogenic. The proportion is the same in natural and man-made substances. The overwhelming majority of carcinogens that humans ingest come from beer, wine, mushrooms and peanuts. This is not because of additives, etc., but rather because those foods are inherently carcinogenic. Any carcinogens that we ingest via additives, preservatives, etc., are at most a footnote. Does that mean that I have stopped drinking beer and wine? Um….no. But I take it easy on the mushrooms.