THE FIRST VICTIM in a war is always the truth, said the writer Rudyard Kipling. That of studies around glyphosate, the most used pesticide in the world – more than 800,000 tonnes each year – is no exception to the rule.
Since its classification in 2015 as a “probable carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), two camps have clashed or, rather, chosen to ignore each other.
The European Commission is proposing to extend the use of glyphosate until 2033. It is based on the conclusions of its regulatory agencies, which act as arbiters for the marketing of plant protection products. Which declare in recent reports that glyphosate does not “meet the scientific criteria to be classified as a carcinogenic substance”.
World academic science draws other conclusions. In 2021, in France, the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) detected a moderate or probable presumption of a link with non-Hodgkin lymphomas. According to European regulations, the classification of a product as a “probable” carcinogen constitutes a “guillotine criterion which must lead to its withdrawal from the market”, indicates François Veillerette, spokesperson for Générations Futures, an association specializing in chemical pollutants. Why do the health conclusions on a herbicide marketed for fifty years differ so much? “We simply don’t read the same thing,” says Xavier Coumoul, Inserm expert and professor of biochemistry and toxicology at Paris Cité. “Our more exhaustive analysis is based on more than 5,300 studies published in the international scientific literature. »
A broader approach
However, European regulators exclude the vast majority of this corpus. They are instead based on confidential studies provided by manufacturers and certain academic analyzes respecting “good laboratory practices”, according to their authors. In force since 1981, these standards require agrochemical companies to follow a strict data recording and test reproducibility protocol to conduct their studies. In universities, these optional standards are rarely applied, because they are considered time-consuming, expensive, and superfluous. “Regulators live in the parallel universe of a regulatory science which marginalizes an entire section of global research,” says François Veillerette.
The other major difference is methodological. On the one hand, regulatory agencies study molecules alone. On the other hand, academic science analyzes the complete formulation of products as sold commercially and studies the interactions between molecules. To justify France’s position to continue with glyphosate, Marc Fesneau, Minister of Agriculture and Food Sovereignty, explains that he “trusts science”. The whole debate is about the idea we have of it.