Glyphosate

The Deceptive Art of Confirmation-Biased 'Science': Condemning Glyphosate

With a little conflict of interest thrown in

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Mike Mozart/CC BY 2.0

Anti-biotech activists hate the herbicide glyphosate, sold by Monsanto under the brand name Roundup. Those activists won a victory in 2015, when the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a report classifying glyphosate as a "probable human carcinogen." That conclusion stood in stark contrast to the findings of every regulatory agency that has evaluated glyphosate over the past two decades, all of which have found the herbicide safe for people and the environment.

How did the World Health Organization diverge so sharply from the scientific consensus? By suppressing extensive evidence of glyphosate's safety. This month Reuters acquired a draft copy the IARC's glyphosate report. In the chapter on animal testing, references to numerous studies that found no link between glyphosate and cancer had been systematically deleted. The IARC refused to explain how that happened other than to refer to its consensus review process.

Meanwhile, a subsequent analysis of how the IARC evaluated the animal testing studies found that "the classification of glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen was the result of a flawed and incomplete summary of the experimental evidence." Many ongoing lawsuits against Monsanto allege that the plaintiffs contracted either non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) or multiple myeloma (MM) as a result of exposures to glyphosate. Researchers in a new review of human epidemiological studies reported that they "did not find support in the epidemiologic literature for a causal association between glyphosate and NHL or MM."

I should note that one Christopher Portier chaired the Advisory Group to Recommend Priorities for IARC Monographs and later served as an invited specialist to the group that evaluated studies related to glyphosate and the risk of cancer.* After he retired from National Center for Environmental Health, Portier began working in 2013 as a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an activist group that has long opposed many aspects of crop biotechnology and the use of glyphosate. In a 2014 letter to the journal Environmental Health Perspectives defending a scientifically discredited study on biotech corn, Portier listed only his affiliation with the IARC. The IARC did later disclose Portier's affiliation with EDF, but the agency apparently failed to consider the possibility that his work with anti-pesticide activist group might amount to a conflict of interest.

Nor is that Portier's only potential conflict of interest. Earlier this month, the European statistician David Zaruk reported that "during the same week that IARC had published its opinion on glyphosate's carcinogenicity, Christopher Portier signed a lucrative contract to be a litigation consultant for two law firms preparing to sue Monsanto on behalf of glyphosate cancer victims." Portier also agreed not to disclose publically his consulting arrangements with the law firms.

Over at Forbes, Albert Einstein College of Medicine cancer epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat concludes, "All of this points to a trusted agency redacting the evidence to suit its predetermined and preferred story-line." That sounds entirely correct. The IARC's evaluation methodologies need to be dramatically overhauled and its leadership changed.

*[CORRECTION] Portier chaired the group that recommended IARC priorities for substances (including glyphosate) to be evaluated for carcinogencity through 2019, but served as an invited specialist with the group that concluded that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen.

Disclosure: About three years ago I bought 100 shares of Monsanto with my own money for $109 per share. They were going yesterday at $121.30 per share.

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  1. The notion that profit is more corrupting and blinding than pure ideology is nonsense. Any blind ideology can be far more damaging to our integrity and ability to acknowledge the truth than the desire for profit. If anything, I’d say the desire for long-term profit actually gives us more incentive to admit mistakes than most other ideologies or desires. The most horrific acts of the 20th century had little to nothing to do with profit nor religion, just pure political ideologies.

    Climate change activists like to ask deniers what evidence would make them change their minds.
    I like to propose the same question, but with the safety of fracking and GMOs.

    Neither will admit there is any evidence that will ever suffice.

    “Corporations and big oil/ag control all the scientists in one big conspiracy” is no different than “global warming is a Chinese conspiracy”.

    Opposition to nuclear power is my biggest pet peeve. No amount of facts will change minds.

    1. I would trust an environmental study funded by Exxon more than an environmental study funded by Greenpeace. Only one has actual skin in the game if they are wrong.

      1. Right, because Exxon would never lie. Just like big pharma never hides data.

        1. I don’t trust their studies either. Everything should be thoroughly questioned and investigated. I just think Greenpeace is even less trustworthy, because they are driven purely by blind ideology.

          1. Ok, fair enough.

          2. Considering that Greenpeace has no problem permanently destroying World Heritage Sites I think you’re probably right on the money.

          3. So ideology is more motivating than profit? how about we simply consult standard sources of science as you do for every other aspect of your life that is not touched by your ideological fixations?

            1. He learned it from you, Tony.

        2. Just like politicians never cover up. My mind boggles that during the Age of Trump that people still trust in the innate goodness and benevolence of the all powerful state.

          1. They don’t. Thinking they do is stupid.

            They just hope that supporting their guy gets the state pointed at someone else.

    2. When Climate Change believers ask me what evidence would change my mind, my answer is “Those who push the idea of man caused climate change have been caught lying to me so often that I would need to see evidence from a source I knew was neutral or opposed. At this point, all evidence from Climate Change advocates is immediately and irredeemably suspect.

      The same goes for the anti-GMO and anti-pesticide crowd. They have lied to me so often that they have no more credibility.

    3. The most horrific acts of the 20th century had little to nothing to do with profit nor religion, just pure political ideologies.

      Well that depends on how you define religion. I would argue that Marxism is a religion. It has its prophet, Marx (and Engels). It has a utopian vision, the classless, moneyless, pure socialist society. It has its unquestionable dogma, such as class struggle and the trajectory of history. And its true believers are so utterly convinced in the necessity of this utopia that they think a price of 20 million lives is justified. That’s what makes it a religion in my opinion, that the faith is so strong its adherents don’t stop to think that maybe there’s a possibility that those genocides were NOT justified because maybe the utopia isn’t really possible after all. That thought never enters their mind. It’s too uncomfortable to admit to yourself that the faith you’ve spent your life pursuing could have been wrong all along.

      And then you have the brainwashing, the leader worship, the enforced conformity in Communist countries that makes you realize there are in fact deities in this religion, but they are human.

    4. Don’t talk to me about facts when I already know what science is supposed to say!

  2. The IARC’s evaluation methodologies need to be dramatically overhauled and its leadership changed.

    Uhhh… .they got exactly the result they wanted. The Europeans are happy. Exactly what more do you want?

    You don’t get fired for doing exactly what you were hired to do.

  3. Millions of starving brownish people is a small price to paying for FEELZ and Woke-iness.

    1. Old Tom Bombadillo, bright blue are his panties and his sheets are yellow…

    2. No one is starving because they can’t get Roundup.

      1. No one is dying because they can.

        1. Then why are people in Asia drinking it to commit suicide?

          When a large quantity of GlySH is ingested,
          death ensues within 72 hours.

          1. Non-carcinogen does not equal ‘you can drink a whole bottle of the stuff without repercussions’.

            Goodness, 11 died from chugging roundup out of 131 people who tried. Hmm…

            Notably, if you drink too much Di-Hydrogen Monoxide too quickly you also die. This means we should be wary of that substance I assume?

            1. Well, this substance has been scientifically proven to cause sweating, urinating, tearing, and sometimes carries deadly pathogens! Why on earth isn’t it subject to common sense, reasonable regulation?

              1. And if you run the right kind of electric current though it, you get rocket fuel! It should be illegal!

          2. Holy shit, you’re right! We have to ban every susbtance that can be overdosed! Let’s start with water.

      2. The link is too bulky but the Federalist website has a good article on this.

  4. Ron, the main issue people have with glyphosate is that it wrecks the gut flora, not cancer. Why would you not mention this in an article on confirmatiom bias?

    1. Because that has nothing to do with this study and this report, which focused entirely on the carcinogenic threat. You are the one moving goalposts and making excuses, not him. The only things I can find online about the effects of glyphosate on gut flora are from organic foodie and anti-GMO websites. The quantity of glyphosate actually consumed by the average person is way too small to have a significant effect on our gut bacteria. Antibiotic use and lack of food diversity is likely orders of magnitude more influential on gut bacteria than trace glyphosate residue.

      If you chug a cup of glyphosate, then you’ll probably have some issues. However, the dosage makes the poison.

      1. What? There are quite a few researched studies on pubmed. And it is relevant, because Ron is making it seem as if complaints about Roundup are unfounded, when they aren’t even the complaints people are making.

        1. They’re the complaints THESE PEOPLE are making.

        2. So the bans proposed are only because someone thinks that their native biome is being compromised by contamination of their precious bodily fluids? Did you even read the article or the justifications given for the european ban?

      2. If you chug a cup of glyphosate, then you’ll probably have some issues. However, the dosage makes the poison.

        Also, key in all of this is the actual real-world application. It’s not just ‘stop using glyphosate’, it’s stop using glyphosate and…
        …use more paraquat (acutely toxic and known to cause Parkinson’s).
        …use copper herbicides (less effective, more toxic, also known to be environmental hazards).
        …use nothing and consume toxic/noxious weeds, molds, and fungi.
        …use nothing eat less food with less variety.

        In any even, when you’re worried about minor perturbations in gut flora, you’re well beyond the point of starvation/subsistence and are really just being an old-fashioned shitty statist about your food production as your field is free to use shitty production methods so long as the field next to it continues to produce. The only real problem comes in when, as I said, you turn full statist and invent bullshit to say the field next to yours can’t farm a certain way because of your gut flora and crops that you don’t eat.

        1. //…use nothing eat less food with less variety.

          to be fair, people would probably be eating more variety of obscure grains and tubers like buckwheat and jerusalem artichokes, if the ban-everything greenies had their way, as you compensate by growing a larger variety of crops to balance pros and cons of each crop and rotate and get other advantages, like the ancient Incas did.

          Then again, there would also be wayer fewer people since most people will have starved, that is again assuming the greenies got their way

          1. people would probably be eating more variety of obscure grains and tubers like buckwheat and jerusalem artichokes

            like the ancient Incas did.

            You misunderstand (conflating dietary diversity with nutritional diversity) or are poorly informed. Less food and less people means less travel, both locally and globally, and less food production. Sure, jerusalem artichokes would be more common but they aren’t any more nutritionally beneficial than red russet potatoes and, more importantly, without ‘industrialized’ farming techniques, soy, wheat, corn, *and* jerusalem artichokes *and* red russet potatoes get more scarce.

    2. Gut Flora is my Nanny’s name.

      1. I hope ‘Gut’ is not a nickname for a physical attribute.

        1. No, she’s half-German.

      1. Yeah, they try to link it to everything from autism to heart disease…. that’s a red flag if ever there was.

      2. It amazes me how lockstep people are on the pet issues of their tribe. I can already guess what the position of “skeptical libertarian” will be on every issue. Let’s not pretend the dude would ever change his mind when presented with new evidence. It would be the same shit liberals do, explaining away contradicting evidence by attacking the source.

        Libertarians are so quick to point out unseen effects when it comes to misguided economic policies, but just as blind to unseen effects as liberals, when ut comes to biology and ecology.

        I am out of this discussion, because I have reached my personal marginal utility on this issue today.

        1. Libertarians are so quick to point out unseen effects when it comes to misguided economic policies, but just as blind to unseen effects as liberals, when ut comes to biology and ecology.

          I’m not sure which is more fucked up. That you think economics and biology/ecology are wholly interchangeable or that you would think libertarian thought would remain unwaveringly consistent across social/empirical or soft/hard sciences.

          I am out of this discussion, because I have reached my personal marginal utility on this issue today.

          You didn’t start out in this discussion. You started out in a discussion you wanted to have and are leaving because, apparently, libertarianism hasn’t got your back.

        2. “I am out of this discussion, because I have reached my personal marginal utility on this issue today.”

          You should be out of the discussion since it’s way over your ability to think.

        3. I’m totally willing to consider the evidence. The problem is that there is a lot of bullshit out there about both GMOs and gut flora right now. These people literally try to link glyphosate to “all of the diseases of Western Civilization”, via the avenue of gut flora, which is just screaming woo-woo bullshit like umpteen other theories that the alternative medicine crowd has come up with recently. It’s really hard to find sound scientific evidence on these subjects because the actual science is generally behind a paywall, but bullshit is instantly available for free. Exercising extreme skepticism is not an unwise strategy.

    3. Mind linking to one of these studies?

      Also should be noted that Roundup breaks down rapidly in the environment, so the chance of it being on your food is pretty low unless the farmer applied it right before harvest (and why would they do that? you do weed control at the beginning of a crop cycle, not so much at the end.)

  5. These motherfuckers have made it very hard for me to kill weed in my grass.

    They can suck my balls.

    1. It’s called Reindeer Moss, Rufus.

  6. Pity that Monsanto can’t sue the IARC for libel. It would seem they should have an open and shut case, but of course the Political Class has made it very hard to successfully sue the political class….

    1. Libertarians support libel laws now?

      1. As opposed to crackpot theories on gut flora?

        1. Based on his post, I looked on pubmed. He…overstated his case by some margin.

          1. Indeed.

      2. Who said I was a Libertarian? I’m a Crank.

        No, seriously; establishing a way of penalizing idiots who lie about a person or company with the intention of doing them harm strikes me as a legitimate government function.

  7. “Disclosure: About three years ago I bought 100 shares of Monsanto with my own money for $109 per share. They were going yesterday at $121.30 per share.”

    Braggart.

    1. I just wonder where he got the money to buy the stock since Journalists legally aren’t paid. Is this Reason’s Russia Scandal?

      1. He was told to put his Kochbucks to work, and he did.

    2. Yeah, ~3% APY. He should show Palin’s Butt Plug how it’s done.

  8. Good thing this is confined to just this one area of research and all other regulatory bodies looking at massively disruptive economic policies are clean as the fallen snow.

    1. NAS: You do ocassionally read Reason on this topic, don’t you?

      1. Apparently I was a little to subtle for you today, Ron.

        1. NAS: Mutual subtlety failure?

  9. trusted agency

    lol


  10. How did the World Health Organization diverge so sharply from the scientific consensus?

    Oy vey, we don’t have the time to go down that rabbit hole before we all die of old age.

    1. “How did the World Health Organization diverge so sharply from the scientific consensus?”

      It’s a United Nations organization; that necessarily means that it is far more driven by politics than by science.

    2. Repeat after me: consensus doesn’t mean shit, data does.

  11. references to numerous studies that found no link between glyphosate and cancer had been systematically deleted. The IARC refused to explain how that happened other than to refer to its consensus review process.

    “This shit is shit, right?”

    “Right. Delete it.”

    “Right.”

  12. In the chapter on animal testing, references to numerous studies that found no link between glyphosate and cancer had been systematically deleted.

    That’s how science works now. You get a bunch of like-minded people to vote on something they agree on, while excluding anything and anyone that might possibly disagree. Science!

  13. The ‘gut flora’ argument contains a number of patent fallacies about the US and World grain markets and food production.

    There is a practice of spraying crops near maturity specifically to kill them and in order to turn over a field for another growing season. However, beans are still green and in the pods, ears are still covered, and the crop, once sprayed, is still a couple weeks away from harvest. From there, even if you assume a field or an entire crop is laden with the chemical (exceedingly unlikely) there’s no guarantee it goes straight to market rather than sitting in a grain bin or getting fed to livestock. Even if it goes straight to market, any given elevator (and associated corporations and municipalities) can reject a crop for pretty much any reason (even if the crop is transgender!). It’s not unheard of for farmers to mix grain from one season to the next in order to meet any demands an elevator may place on the grain. Even then, all of this assumes a rather direct field-to-table consumption model which is largely a fallacy. The closest most of these things gets to field-to-table is canned corn and soybeans in a plastic bag at your local supermarket.

    1. All I know is I wish food had way more preservatives because I’m sick of not finishing a gallon of milk.

      1. You buy milk by the gallon?? Damn, your monocle must be gold plated!!

      2. I only smoke GMO-free, gut flora-friendly cigars.

  14. The idiocy of a blanket ban on Roundup because gut flora is exceptionally idiotic if you consider a field of round-up ready crops for ethanol production between a field of roundup ready (or not) field for feeding livestock and a field of roundup ready (or not) crops for corn syrup or grain product. Not only has application equipment and science gotten more exacting allowing one field to be treated while leaving the next entirely unaffected. The notion that the government should pick which field wins and why, well before the crop gets to the stomach and/or gas tank, should offend pretty much anybody with the simplest of libertarian notions.

  15. Didn’t George Clooney make a bizarre movie about this?

  16. I have used glyphosate, and gotten it on me. I didn’t get cancer. Ergo glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer.

    Ohhhh, you mean the half-baked, cockamamie theory that “chronic” exposure, even to extremely low doses over a long time might cause cancer? Yeahhh, by that definition everything causes cancer. You do know that getting old causes cancer, right? So statistically there’s no way to avoid the conclusion that any material causes cancer if you frame it in those broad terms.

    So, can we get back to real science?

  17. I suspect their singling-out of roundup is because RoundUp is the pesticide chosen to work with GMO. Of course, GMO crops are scientifically also benign.

  18. As a farmboy growing up on a hardscrabble cotton and soybean farm in the late 70s, I, along with every other farmboy that I knew, spent many days virtually covered in Round Up. I don’t know one person who has contracted cancer that could be directly attributed to it.

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