Commentaries, Environment, Health November 27, 2017

EU Reapproval of Glyphosate Leaves Environmentalists’ Strategy in Tatters; What Now?

by Jonathan Latham

by Jonathan Latham, PhD
The ecology of Planet Earth is rapidly collapsing under a rising tide of toxic pollution and plastic waste as, in every sector of the economy, natural products and methods are replaced with synthetics. One example, just recently reported, is that in 1974 non-organic wheat production in the UK required 2 sprays per year. In 2014 UK wheat required 20.7 sprays.

The chief strategy of the environmental movement to stem the toxic tide is to challenge specific “bad actor” chemicals and force their withdrawal from the market. Occasionally, this has been successful. Many countries no longer spray DDT or lindane, for example. But given that there are 70-100,000 man-made chemicals on the market, most of which aren’t tested and may be toxic, this effort is likely to be successfully concluded in approximately the year 1 million AD. Assuming that is, the chemical industry doesn’t invent any new products in the meantime, and that removing a toxic chemical only takes ten years of campaigning effort, both of which assumptions are very optimistic.

Roundup (Glyphosate)

There is another problem with this environmental approach. It assumes that carefully conducted tests, honestly done, can separate toxic and nontoxic chemicals in a meaningful way. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite. It can easily be shown that chemical testing is a pointless procedure because the potential serious harms from toxic chemicals are essentially endless, whereas chemical testing assesses these harms: carcinogenicity, neurotoxicity, liver toxicity, reproductive toxicity, multigenerational effects, one at a time. A whole city’s worth of rats would have to be tested to even begin to work out if just one chemical was harmful, and that is just harmful to rats. Whether that chemical was harmful to people would still be open to considerable question.

The conventional extrapolation by toxicologists from rodents and other animals to humans is not scientific. It is an arbitrary convention that frequently turns out to be wrong. This wrongness is tacitly accepted even by regulators. The IARC of the World Health Organisation, which has come closest of all official regulators to damning glyphosate, has toxicological categories that distinguish between human and animal toxicity; this concedes that animal experiments do not, after all, predict human toxicity.

Leaving aside the ethics of testing millions of animals to no purpose, this kind of fuzzy logic on the part of regulators is manna to the chemical industry. Whenever a chemical is found irrefutably toxic to animals, it simply moves to insisting on epidemiological evidence in humans. On the school playground it’s called moving the goalposts.

So what seems to be a moderately successful environmental strategy, of challenging chemical approvals with science, is really just a poor tactic and a losing strategy; not least because it seems to imply that all other chemicals are safe. And even when it appears to succeed it really fails. One chemical is phased out (or exported) and is merely replaced by another. Atrazine for glyphosate anyone?

Opponents of chemical pollution might instead want to borrow from anti-GMO campaigns. These have more-or-less successfully kept GMOs out of Europe, China and Asia, and Africa, and made GMOs a pariah even where they are grown.

The secret of this campaign has been to not distinguish between different GMOs. Opposing GMOs carte blanche allows diverse people and interests to unite behind one banner—whether they oppose patents on life, corporate control, or chemical pollution, or simply hazards specific to GMOs. It is a broad tent, and it doesn’t require detailed technical knowledge on the part of the public. Which is easier, to get behind a banner saying “NO GMO”, or one saying “I oppose the active ingredient 1-methonomethyl-2-arbitrazine because of its cumulative hyperplastic effects on the ovaries and vestigial glands of certain species of frogs at doses between 1 and 0.1ng/ml (Doolittle and Dally, 1983)”?

As I showed once before, opposing chemicals on narrow scientific grounds wrongly and disastrously concedes the efficacy of conventional toxicological testing. It concedes the partiality and often open dishonesty of government-picked regulators. It concedes regulatory reliance on industry-generated evidence. It concedes that industry guided the development of chemical toxicology regulations from the beginning. It concedes the ethics of animal experimentation. It concedes the use of GLP guidelines that compel regulators to ignore the peer-reviewed scientific literature that taxpayers so expensively payed for. It concedes that companies can conceal their evidence behind “Confidential Business Information” claims. It concedes that most chemical testing by independent laboratories is likely to be fraudulent; and it concedes the narrowness of chemical trespass being a scientific question in the first place.

So while it is true that campaigners will grouse about such unfair and unethical practices, to campaign against specific chemicals like glyphosate is to imply to the public that such defects are, ultimately, acceptable, when the reality is that they doom from the outset any real possibility of a fair trial in the court of science.

So while anti-GMO campaigns have their own challenge of gene editing as an end run around the definition of a GMO, this is a fine complement in comparison to being laughed at by the chemical industry, which is tonight celebrating the reapproval of glyphosate with copious quantities of Belgian beer having persuaded the EU to ride roughshod, and probably fraudulently, once again over the niceties of chemical regulatory rules and the democratic process and to approve glyphosate for five more years.

The solution to the issue of chemical pollution is therefore an oppositional strategy that is equal to the existential nature of the threat at hand. The environment movement needs to end single chemical campaigns and hit the chemical industry where it hurts. Ban ALL synthetic chemicals from agriculture. Ban ALL synthetic chemicals from schools and school grounds. Ban them from public areas, or your entire municipality (it can be done), including from food contact.

Some such campaigns have already been tried, and where they have succeeded, unlike the banning of individual chemicals, the results make a real difference. But the environment movement could go further: How about making regulators liable for their decisions? How about proposing to end subsidies to industries that use synthetic chemicals in or on foods? How about automatically compensating individuals whose bodies contain toxic chemicals and who become unwell from a fund provided by the industry which made that chemical? Now that would get the attention of the chemical industry, it might energise the public too.

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Comments 16
  • Right on! It is an existential threat. Human health depends on a healthy environment, not on the absence of any specific list of human disturbances. There are numerous examples of farmers who are more successful by not using chemicals than their neighbours who do use them. The total elimination of chemical / industrial / fossil-fueled agriculture is possible and economically viable using techniques that are already known. Let’s go there – Now!

  • Thank you for the extremely frustrating news. The glyphosate tests have been done on european parlament members:
    and despite of the results, showing that all have it in their urine, there seem to be a total denial, OR something much bigger than Monsanto.

  • Are there any studies on impact of glyphysate on waters and soil?

  • I think it is time that the so called ‘environmental movement’ accepted that their cause is lost. The science shone through. I don’t think anyone in their right mind believes that glyphosate is harmful to humans, or the environment other than plants (it is, after all, a herbicide). No regulatory agency anywhere in the world can find fault with it, nor can the World Health Organisation. It is time that those people pretending to save the environment accepted that they were doing more harm than good with their opposition to this safest and most tested of herbicides. Accept the consequences and find a just cause to fight instead.

    • “Mr. McDonald”, there is a discrepancy between your comment’s author name, which is “Finn McDonald,” and your email address, which is [email protected]. This, and your series of unscientific comments as “Brian Duggan” on the previous Golden Rice article, lead us to conclude that you are a troll.

      • Well you stopped publishing my responses. May you didn’t like the fact that I was right?!? Numerous literature reviews have shown the safety of glyphosate, just as numerous studies have shown the safety of GMO’s. Science has won. And we will keep on winning Mr Latham. 😊

        • Your responses were blocked because, as your “Dr Brian Duggan” alterego you broke the comments policy of respectfulness.

        • Science has won… “we” will keep winning?

          This comment makes clear everything wrong with the modern pseudoscientific “scientism” movement. Thank you Dr. Duggan for such a perfect example 🙂

          Please don’t personify science, it looks silly now and will look even stupider as the decades go on.

  • Hear hear! For the reasons you state, along with many more, that is why the campaign I run the UK Pesticides Campaign (UKPC) has been one of the only ones that does not get embroiled in individual chemical campaigns as it misses the whole point that NO poisons should ever have been used in food production in the first place.

    The objective of the UKPC from the outset in 2001 has been to immediately ban all crop spraying of any pesticides in the locality of residents homes, schools, children’s playgrounds etc. and ultimately for a complete paradigm shift to a non-chemical farming policy, which is also what the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food recommended in March that all countries globally do.

    The origins of traditional farming methods did not include dependence on chemical inputs for mass production. This chemical warfare in the countryside under the guise of ‘conventional farming’ has to stop for the protection of all rural citizens now, and for future generations.

    Georgina Downs FRSA, IFAJ, BGAJ
    UK Pesticides Campaign

  • Dear Jonathan,

    Thank you for writing this. I absolutely agree with you. The only hope is a sea change. One of the reasons why I stopped writing articles on glyphosate is because I saw that it would take years to get them to ban or even limit its use. In the meantime, Monsanto et al. already have the next deadly chemicals lined up ready to unload on us. This is exactly what happened with DDT. They’ve been playing this game for 100 years. The populace is deliberately deluded. People really believe that a chemical can “target” a specific plant and kill it while not harming anything else. This defies logic. People really believe that we must have chemicals for farming or we cannot feed the world. My brother-in-law made this statement at dinner a while back. What hope is there when the propaganda is in place while the kids are in 4-H (an agricultural program for kids in the US) through college where the chemical companies are subsidizing the agricultural schools?

  • “Mr. McDonald,” Before reading Dr.Latham’s rebuke, I had also concluded that u r a troll. Moreover, as Dr. L’s rebuke suggests, you’re really bad at what you do. Am suggesting to ur handlers that they give u the bum’s rush, hiring someone who at least knows his craft.

  • Jonathan – that’s deeply true – argument within a failed proposition only endorses it – giving credence to and prolonging economic and ecologic causes whose effects are destructive. The same is true for the greening of impossible (fossil-fuelled) systems of super markets, retail parks, aviation, suburbia and so on. Green them by organic produce and renewable energy and we’ll still head for at least three degrees of warming – & so the destruction of them all. Just as good sense evacuates ideas of interfering with the almost infinite complexity of the relationships between species (GM), so good sense also evacuates ring roads, aviation, the family car… Thank you.

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