Monsanto’s Roundup and risk of Cancer
by Sandhya Jain on 22 Aug 2017 10 Comments

Although the western media has largely ignored an on-going case against agricultural giant Monsanto in Los Angeles, California, for concealing research about the cancer risks associated with its money spinning weed killer, Roundup, leaked documents show that the firm reportedly influenced US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials to suppress the information.


Roundup (active ingredient Glyphosate) is a non-selective herbicide which kills weeds that compete with agricultural crops. The LA-based plaintiff firm, Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, representing persons who claim that they or their family members got cancer due to Monsanto products, released the documents earlier this month, after a technical failure by Monsanto’s legal team freed them from confidentiality. The documents are mostly emails exchanged between Monsanto executives and researchers working for or connected with the EPA, between 1999 and 2016.


Attorney Brent Wisner observed, “Monsanto has deliberately been stopping studies that look bad for them, ghostwriting literature and engaging in a whole host of corporate malfeasance. They [Monsanto] have been telling everybody that these products are safe because regulators have said they are safe, but it turns out that Monsanto has been in bed with US regulators while misleading European regulators”.


The EPA’s Report of the Cancer Assessment Review Committee on glyphosate (2015) tackled glyphosate’s cancer risks in a neutral manner, and concluded that it has no connection with many types of tumors, adding cautiously, “there is conflicting evidence” that glyphosate causes non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL), a type of blood cancer. Most of the 900-odd persons suing Monsanto claim to have contracted precisely this type of cancer after exposure to Roundup.


Years of unaddressed complaints culminated in the March Against Monsanto movement in 2013. Resistance is particularly strong in Europe where, in June 2017, over one million people signed the European Citizens Initiative petition to ban glyphosate, and submitted it to 28 European nations.


A Russia Today documentary in 2014 claimed that Monsanto has caused over three lakh Indian farmers to commit suicide over the last two decades. Agricultural scientist Dr. G.V. Ramanjaneyulu of the Center For Sustainable Agriculture said farmers were allegedly forced to grow GM cotton instead of traditional crops. The seeds were so expensive and required costly inputs; farmers often went bankrupt and killed themselves.


Hitherto, Monsanto has successfully stalled release of any scientific report that definitively concludes that Roundup, sold since 1974, causes cancer. But now, decisive Secret Documents with plaintiff firm Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman give insight into its murky deals, from ghostwriting, scientific manipulation, collusion with the EPA, and previously undisclosed information about how the human body absorbs glyphosate.


These secret documents have been shared with the EPA Office of Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr., who is investigating possible collusion between EPA and Monsanto; the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), which recently listed glyphosate as a substance known to cause cancer; and the European Parliament.


One exchange between Monsanto executive Dr William Heydens and Ashley Roberts regarding the Expert Panel Manuscript (No: MONGLY01000676, MONGLY01000680, Aug. 2, 2016–Sept. 2, 2016) reveals that Heydens edited the manuscript without disclosing his role. This manuscript aimed to refute the March 2015 report of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).


The IARC had conducted an exhaustive analysis on the toxicity of glyphosate and found that within days of applying Roundup to a crop, nearly 60 per cent of US farm workers tested positive for glyphosate in their urine.


Various studies prove that exposure to glyphosate can cause DNA damage and DNA strand breaks, an important precursor to cancer. The IARC specifically gauged the genotoxicity of Roundup (the property of chemical agents that damages the genetic information within a cell, causing mutations, which may lead to cancer) and concluded that “[t]here is strong evidence that glyphosate causes genotoxicity.”


Studies also show that glyphosate exposure can induce oxidative stress, which is thought to be involved in the development of several conditions, including cancer, autism and Parkinson’s disease. The IARC found that “strong evidence exists that glyphosate … can induce oxidative stress.” This could be an important mechanism by which Roundup causes cancer.


It is pertinent that in 1985, the EPA, based on early animal studies which showed increased incidence of cancer in mice exposed to glyphosate, classified glyphosate as a Group C chemical, possibly carcinogenic to humans. But in 1991, after heavy lobbying by Monsanto, the EPA re-evaluated the data and re-classified glyphosate as a Group E chemical, suggesting there was no evidence it could cause cancer in humans.


This re-classification coincided with Monsanto’s launch of Roundup Ready seeds, which now account for annual sales of US $6 billion. Roundup Ready crops are genetically modified (GM) seeds engineered to be resistant to the weed killer, and thus grow when all other living plant material around it dies. The long-term effects on the soil are irreversible.


Some scientists believe that the mechanism that makes Roundup toxic to weeds also makes it toxic to microbes inside the human gut. When humans are exposed to Roundup, it leads to a chronic inflammatory state in the gut, and an impaired gut barrier, which can lead to many long-term health effects, including increased risk of cancer.


The Secret Documents with the plaintiff firm reveal an email (No: MONGLY00999487, dated June 1, 2016) in which Dr William Heydens admits to ghostwriting the introductory chapter of the Expert Panel Manuscript. Heydens admits writing “a draft introduction chapter back in October/November… [a]nd then comes the question of who should be the ultimate author … you (Ashley Roberts) or Gary? I was thinking you for the Introduction chapter and Gary for the Summary chapter…”


Internal email (No: MONGLY01023968, Aug. 5, 2015-Nov. 5, 2015) covers exchanges between Michael Koch and Heydens regarding “Post-IARC Activities to Support Glyphosate”. Heydens identifies one of the goals as “Publication on Animal Data Cited by IARC…” This document exposes Monsanto’s involvement in scientific publications without disclosing inherent conflicts of interest. Through ghost-writing, Monsanto dominated the scientific discourse with favourable studies on glyphosate.


As that battle rages in California, in India two parallel developments have occurred simultaneously. On August 10, 2017 Union Minister for Environment Dr Harsh Vardhan stated in an interview that the Centre will examine all objections raised by scientists, farmers, policy makers and concerned citizens before taking a decision on GM mustard. On August 11, 2017, the Economic Survey recommended GM seeds in all crops, not just transgenic mustard. This indicates the deep penetration of corporates, including multi-nationals, in policy-making institutions of the Government.  

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