EU experts accused of conflict of interest over herbicide linked to cancer

Controversy has raged about glyphosate, the key ingredient of Roundup, since World Health Organisation experts suggested it was 'probably' carcinogenic

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Greenpeace has accused members of a European Union expert committee of having conflicts of interest over whether a controversial weedkiller linked to cancer and harmful effects on bees should be banned.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and the world’s most widely used herbicide, was said to “probably” cause cancer by the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency in 2015 in a paper in the journal Lancet Oncology.

However, other bodies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency, later said it probably did not cause cancer.

There has also been research suggesting glyphosate, so widely used it can be detected in bread, urine and even breast milk, causes harmful, but not lethal, effects on bees

The issue led to a spat between Chris Packham and the National Farmers Union, which has described the relicensing of glyphosate as a “top priority”, after the BBC Springwatch presenter urged people to sign a petition supporting a ban

On Wednesday, the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) is due to issue its recommendation to the European Commission about whether a new 15-year license to allow the chemical’s use should be issued.

But, just two days before the decision is due to be announced, Greenpeace sent a letter to the ECHA’s executive director, Geert Dancet, claiming several members of its Risk Assessment Committee (RAC) “appear to have a conflict of interest, according to ECHA’s own criteria”, The Independent can reveal.

The letter said the ECHA’s rules said this could arise if “the impartiality and objectivity of a decision, opinion or recommendation of the agency … Is or might in the public perception be compromised by an interest”.

Employment by a business or a research institute “whose funding is significantly derived from commercial sources” during the past five years could potentially be considered a conflict of interest.

“By these standards, RAC members Slawomir Czerczak and Tiina Santonen appear to have conflicts of interest,” the letter said.

“Both are employed by public scientific institutes that also generate income from providing risk assessment consultancy services to the chemical industry.

“The professional experience of the current chair, Tim Bowmer, principally consists of risk assessment consultancy for the chemical industry. He may not be best-placed to safeguard strict independence from industry interests.”

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Monsanto's controversial Glyphosate pesticide, Roundup (Reuters)

The letter also expressed concern that the ECHA committee was using “unpublished scientific evidence provided by the industry in formulating its opinions” in addition to studies published in peer-reviewed journals.

“Agencies such as ECHA, whose scientific opinions form the basis for regulatory action, should only consider scientific evidence that is publicly available so that any scientist can replicate the findings,” Greenpeace added.

“Their work should be transparent and carried out by independent experts without conflicts of interest.

“We respectfully ask you to enforce and improve ECHA’s policies to safeguard its independence from industry and transparency of its work.”

The ECHA, which had not received the letter when contacted by The Independent, said it published declarations of interest for key staff and committee members on its website.

On the two members and committee chair named by Greenpeace, an ECHA spokesman said: “As you can see their declarations give no cause for concern in terms of a conflict of interest in relation to glyphosate. 

“Please note that these two RAC members work for respected national institutions that offer consultation services to industry, which is a normal practice.

“So, the short answer to your question is that there are no conflicts of interest.”

The spokesman added that the two committee members named had not been part of the group that carried out the analysis of glyphosate or another group which acts as reviewers of the work.

“We will publish the names of the rapporteurs after the opinion has been agreed – we do not do it before so as to protect them from any lobbying,” the ECHA spokesman said.

A petition calling for people to “stand up for UK agriculture and save glyphosate from being banned by false knowledge and ignorance” has attracted nearly 3,800 signatures

The petition describes an Armageddon-style scenario if glyphosate is banned.

“Without glyphosate to control otherwise uncontrollable weeds … Whole areas of the east of England will become over run by weeds we have no other way of controlling,” it says.

“Glyphosate is keeping Britain farming – it’s as simple as that.”

The ECHA committee is due to reveal its recommendation on Wednesday, but may delay this until another meeting on 15 March.

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