Stéphane Horel, Stéphane Foucart, Le Monde / Environmental Health News, November 20, 2017
Editors Note: This month Le Monde won the Prix Varenne Presse quotidienne nationale (Varenne Award for the national daily press) for their Monsanto Papers series, an investigation on the worldwide war the Monsanto corporation has started in order to save glyphosate, originally published in June.
“We have been attacked in the past, we have faced smear campaigns, but this time we are the target of an orchestrated campaign of an unseen scale and duration.” Christopher Wild’s smile quickly faded. Through the window of the high rise where the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is headquartered, the rooftops of Lyon, France, spread out behind his tall figure.
Christopher Wild is the director of the agency so he weighed every word—speaking with a seriousness appropriate for the situation. For the past two years, a blazing onslaught has targeted the institution he is running: the credibility and integrity of IARC’s work are being challenged, its experts are being denigrated and harassed by lawyers, and its finances weakened.
For nearly half a century IARC has been charged, under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO), to draw up an inventory of carcinogens. But now the venerable agency is beginning to waver under the assault.
The hostilities were launched on a specific date: March 20, 2015. On that day, IARC announced the conclusions of its “Monograph 112“. The findings left the whole world stunned. Unlike the majority of regulatory agencies, IARC declared the most widely used pesticide on the planet to be genotoxic (it causes DNA damage), carcinogenic to animals, and a “probable carcinogen” for humans.
The pesticide is glyphosate, the main component of Roundup, the flagship product of one of the world’s most well-known companies: Monsanto. Glyphosate is also the Leviathan of the agrochemical industry. Used for more than 40 years, it is present in no less than 750 products marketed by about 100 companies in more than 130 countries.
Glyphosate, the bedrock of Monsanto
Between 1974, when it was placed on the market, and 2014, the use of glyphosate increased from 3,200 tons to 825,000 tons per year. A dramatic increase that is due to the massive adoption of seeds that are genetically modified to tolerate it – “Roundup Ready” seeds.
Of all the agrochemical companies that could be affected by measures to restrict or ban the product, there is one whose very survival is at stake. Monsanto, which developed glyphosate, has made the chemical the bedrock of its economic model. The company has built its fortune selling Roundup and the seeds that go with it.
So when IARC announced that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic,” the American firm reacted with unprecedented brutality. In a company statement, it vilified IARC’s work as “junk science”— a selective “cherry-picking” of data, based on an “agenda-driven bias,” all leading to a decision made after only “hours of discussion at a one-week meeting.”
Never before had a corporation so crudely challenged the integrity of an agency under the aegis of the United Nations. The battle was launched—the one taking place in the open at least.
A year’s work to evaluate the pesticide
Because in its own offices Monsanto was dancing to a completely different tune. The company knew full well that IARC’s evaluation of glyphosate was carried out after a year of work by a group of experts, who then met for several days in Lyon to deliberate. IARC procedures require that the industries affected by the product under review have the right to attend this final meeting.
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