On 28 September 2011, the scientist at the centre of the global row over glyphosate/Roundup herbicide and birth defects met with representatives of the German government to present his scientific findings that Roundup herbicide and the chemical on which it is based, glyphosate, cause birth defects in laboratory animals.
Prof Andres Carrasco, MD, is head of the Molecular Embryology Laboratory at University of Buenos Aires (UBA) and chief scientist at the National Council for Science and Technology (CONICET), Argentina. Carrasco’s findings gave scientific credibility to reports of people in Argentina who claimed escalating rates of birth defects and cancers after the introduction of genetically modified soy, which is engineered to tolerate being sprayed with huge amounts of glyphosate.
Accompanying Dr Carrasco at the meeting were representatives of the sustainability nonprofit organisation Earth Open Source. The delegation met with representatives from BMELV, BVL, UBA, and BfR. The current approval of glyphosate dates from 2002.
The current approval (in common with all approvals of pesticide and genetically modified crops) is based on studies performed by the very same pesticide companies that stand to profit from an approval of the substance.
Originally glyphosate was due to be reviewed in 2012 but the Commission delayed the review until 2015. Germany has a special responsibility in the Roundup controversy because it is the rapporteur member state for glyphosate, responsible for liaising between the pesticide industry, the EU Commission and the EU member states on the EU approval of glyphosate. Germany will remain as the rapporteur member state for the 2015 review of the substance.
In June 2011, Earth Open Source published a report by a group of international scientists, “Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?” which examined the original approval documents for glyphosate and found that industry’s own studies from as long ago as the 1980s-1990s (including some commissioned by Monsanto) showed that glyphosate causes birth defects in laboratory animals, specifically rabbits and rats.
Birth defects were found in these industry studies not only at high, maternally toxic doses, but also at lower doses. As the industry studies were supposed to be on pure glyphosate, they show that it is not only the toxic added ingredients in Roundup (called adjuvants or co-formulants) that cause problems, but also glyphosate itself. Earth Open Source disagrees with Germany’s interpretation of these industry studies as laid out in its report to the EU Commission in 1998.
In this report, which formed the basis of the EU Commission’s current approval of glyphosate, Germany incorrectly classified malformations as “rather a developmental variation than a malformation” and dismissed findings of malformations at lower doses.
Earth Open Source believes that as a result of such data being ignored, a potentially unsafe “acceptable daily intake” limit for glyphosate was set by Germany and accepted by the Commission in its 2002 approval. Earth Open Source says that the industry study findings are confirmed by Carrasco’s research, which found birth defects from both Roundup and pure glyphosate.
Carrasco commented that the malformations found in the industry studies were consistent with those found in his own study, as both types of malformations depend on a mechanism called the retinoic acid pathway. Carrasco’s findings were not welcomed by some sectors of society in Argentina.
The Argentine government is heavily dependent on the soy economy because it has levied taxes of 35% on soy exports. Earth Open Source believes that the Argentine situation is highly relevant to Europe. Much the soy grown in Argentina is imported into Europe to feed our livestock and it is unclear that these glyphosate-sprayed soy imports are tested for residues.
In addition, there are several applications in the EU approvals pipeline for the cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant crops, which, if cultivated in Europe, will result in an escalation of glyphosate exposure. Claire Robinson, spokesperson for Earth Open Source, said, “We requested this meeting to bring attention to the inadequacies of the current approvals process for pesticides and other risky substances.
“We asked the German government to conduct a rigorous and transparent review of glyphosate for the 2015 review – taking into account the full range of independent scientific findings as well as the industry studies. “On the EU level, we are asking the Commission to cease allowing industry to conduct its own studies on risky substances like pesticides, chemicals, genetically modified foods, and food additives. “Instead, industry should pay money into a central fund administered by the EU government and the government should commission independent scientists to do the studies.
The scientists doing the testing could be blinded to the identity of the substance and its manufacturer to ensure impartiality.
“We thank the German government representatives for their willingness to listen to our concerns and hope that together we can move the approvals process in the direction of stronger science and better protection of human health and the environment.”
Notes 1. Paganelli, A., Gnazzo, V., Acosta, H., López, S.L., Carrasco, A.E. 2010. Glyphosate-based herbicides produce teratogenic effects on vertebrates by impairing retinoic acid signalling. Chem. Res. Toxicol., August 9. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/tx1001749
2. Antoniou et al. Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark? Earth Open Source. June 2011. http://www.earthopensource.org/index.php/reports/17-roundup-and-birth-defects-is-the-public-being-kept-in-the-dark