Have you heard that glyphosate causes cancer?

You may have also heard recently that red meat causes cancer.

If you have, it’s because last year, a group called the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), decided both are “probable” carcinogens. Coming from a group with ties to the World Health Organization, the attention – and, unfortunately, the confusion and concern – that both decisions have received is understandable.

However, it’s important to understand what an IARC classification really means. Rather than explain myself, I want to highlight a recently published special report by Reuters, appropriately titled “How the World Health Organization’s cancer agency confuses consumers.” The Reuters investigation helps put IARC into perspective with points like these:

  • “Over four decades, [IARC] has assessed 989 substances and activities, ranging from arsenic to hairdressing, and found only one was ‘probably not’ likely to cause cancer in humans. It was an ingredient in nylon used in stretchy yoga pants and toothbrush bristles.”
  • “[E]xperts from academia, industry and public health say IARC confuses the public and policymakers. Some critics say the way IARC considers and communicates whether substances are carcinogenic is flawed and needs reform.”
  • “[IARC’s] methods are poorly understood and do not serve the public well, according to Bob Tarone, a statistician formerly at America’s National Cancer Institute and now Biostatistics Director at the International Epidemiology Institute. He said of the way IARC works: ‘It’s not good for science, it’s not good for regulatory agencies. And for people? Well, they are just being confused.’”

The Reuters investigation also reveals significant shortcomings and conflicts of interests with IARC’s process:

  • “[The current debate in Europe around glyphosate] has thrown up concerns about potential conflicts of interest at IARC: It involves an adviser to the agency who is closely linked to the Environmental Defense Fund, a U.S. campaign group opposed to pesticides.”
  • “Between 2012 and 2015, IARC published or started 18 monographs involving 314 scientists. A Reuters analysis found that at least 61 of those scientists served on monograph working groups that considered their own scientific research.”

I encourage anyone with concerns about glyphosate safety to read the Reuters special report and consider that IARC’s classification is inconsistent with the overwhelming consensus of regulatory authorities around the world, who have assessed all the studies examined by IARC – and many more.

Indeed, while IARC’s erroneous classification of glyphosate has attracted media attention and been used repeatedly as a scare tactic by activists, regulators around the world continue to support the safe use of glyphosate. In just the 13 months since IARC classified glyphosate, regulatory authorities in Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia have publicly reaffirmed that glyphosate does not cause cancer.

Unfortunately, much of this important context has been missing from the media coverage around IARC’s classification of glyphosate, which is a shame because IARC reports not only create unnecessary confusion with consumers, but they also fuel efforts by activist groups to mislead the public with shoddy science.

In late May, IARC will convene again – this time to evaluate the potential carcinogenic risks of coffee and other hot beverages. Hopefully this time around there will be more conversation about what an IARC classification really means.

If I say the world is round and someone else says it’s flat, that’s worth reporting. But you might also want to report on a bunch of scientific evidence that seems to support the notion that the world is round.
– President Obama
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If I say the world is round and someone else says it’s flat, that’s worth reporting. But you might also want to report on a bunch of scientific evidence that seems to support the notion that the world is round.
– President Obama

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Originally published April 20, 2016 by M.