Today’s article is a must read because it is reporting on an issue that has become divisive in the public eye. A new review of the research on glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup, shows that it is probably a human carcinogen. As Dan Charles from NPR’s The Salt points out, while this news sounds bad, the truth is really much more nuanced. Yet, as expected, this news is already being trumpeted by those opposed to Monsanto, the company that manufactures Roundup. Monsanto also creates and sells seeds for the genetically modified (GMO) crops that are resistant to glyphosate. To those opposed to the use of GMOs, Monsanto is the devil. So now, there is a review that seems, on the surface, to prove that both glyphosate and by extension, GMOs, are unsafe for humans. Critically, this is not actually what the review concludes. This is a perfect example of how selective reporting on scientific research can confuse and mislead the public. This is incredibly important, because both sides of a debate can leverage these reports to bolster their side, when the truth is usually somewhere in between. I’ll leave it to you to read the article, but here are some of the most important takeaways:
“…the IARC is saying that glyphosate probably could cause cancer in humans, but not that it probably does.” “… society often chooses simply to accept certain hazards. Among the other things that the IARC says probably cause cancer are burning wood in home fireplaces, disruption of circadian rhythms by working overnight shifts and working as a hairdresser.” What this means is that the dose makes the poison: yes, glyphosate causes changes in cellular DNA that could lead to cancer, but the report does not say under what circumstances and at what dose. This is a very important area for more research, because there are countless substances in our daily environments that are technically carcinogens, but that you’d have to be exposed to in huge quantities to actually be put at risk.
“…studies of human health records did not turn up convincing evidence of glyphosate’s cancer-causing potential. A long-running study of farm workers, for instance, did not show higher rates of cancer among those exposed to the chemical.” This conclusion from the report will definitely not be showing up in the responses from those organizations that are anti-GMO and anti-Monsanto.
“…Glyphosate residues on food, however, are not of great concern. The chemical is used in the early stages of growing crops like soybeans, corn, and canola. Those crops, if they even reach human consumers at all, are heavily processed first, destroying any glyphosate residues.” Again, this fact is not likely to be highlighted by those who are motivated to cherry-pick only those parts of the report that fit their beliefs.
All this said, I also want to point out that I am disappointed (although far from surprised) in Monsanto’s response that the report is biased and constitutes “junk science.” The research cited in the report does show a probable carcinogenic effect that needs more study, and it’s disingenuous for Monsanto to dismiss it simply as bad science. Monsanto has an agenda too, so they are just as likely to cherry-pick as the anti-GMO crowd. True skepticism and critical thinking means taking account of all the data; but I realize that’s a lot to ask when it comes to these controversial issues. If you are anti-GMO or if this report scares you, please read the article and realize that this is not the final word, and that frightening buzzwords like “carcinogen” and “cancer” should not derail your responsibility to think critically.