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Political foot-dragging at EPA over controversial weed killer


When Congress reconvenes next week, lawmakers will continue to press the Environmental Protection Agency about why it’s withholding their report that says glyphosate, the world’s most popular weed killer, does not cause cancer. One Senate committee and three Congressional committees are demanding answers from the EPA, which has largely ignored their requests while making plans to convene another panel later this year to evaluate the controversial chemical again. 

Some on Capitol Hill think the EPA’s foot-dragging is politically motivated. Glyphosate is the latest target of the global environmental movement because it’s applied to genetically engineered crops that environmentalists oppose (both are manufactured by Monsanto). Glyphosate is also safely used on conventional farms, open spaces and home gardens around the world.

But green activists want the herbicide banned, claiming it causes everything from honeybee deaths to cancer. They notched a major victory in March 2015 when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer arm, declared glyphosate is a probable carcinogen despite limited evidence of human carcinogenicity.

IARCs dubious findings prompted a similar review by the EPA and last September, the agency’s cancer review committee evaluated glyphosate and issued its final report on October 1, 2015. The committee determined glyphosate “is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” and found no connection to a number of cancers including brain, colon, prostate and lung. The report also raised several concerns with IARCs study, including the use of shoddy data. Over the past year, other agencies including the European Food Safety Authority and WHOs Food and Agriculture Organization have determined glyphosate is non-carcinogenic.

The EPA report is a major blow to the anti-glyphosate campaign, which could explain why the agency kept it under wraps for seven months until it was posted online April 29. But it was removed a few days later; an EPA spokesman said it had been posted “inadvertently” and that the agency’s assessment was still ongoing.

That raised plenty of red flags on Capitol Hill. In a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said the report’s mishandling “may shed light on larger systemic problems occurring at the agency.” Smith requested that all documents and emails about the glyphosate report be turned over.

The agency failed to comply. On June 22, McCarthy appeared before his committee where he said the EPA “has become an agency in pursuit of a purely political agenda.” McCarthy acknowledged “it is a big deal to deal with glyphosate both in terms of its international context and the importance it has for U.S. agriculture” and that the evaluation should be completed by fall.

But in a move that looks like a stall tactic, the following month the EPA announced it would invite another scientific advisory panel in late October — more than a year after the cancer committee report was finalized — to again evaluate the carcinogenicity of glyphosate. Smith blasted the tactic, saying his committee “continues to find evidence that EPA fails to recognize or acknowledge the science that its own agency conducts and instead appears to make politically motivated decisions.”

Sen. James Inhofe, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, also suggested the EPAs decision was political. In a letter to the agency, Inhofe said he believed “that EPA is seemingly under pressure to come to a certain conclusion on glyphosate” and asked for documents related to the review.

The stakes are high for the agency’s outcome as activists pressure lawmakers here and around the world to curtail glyphosate’s use. This summer, the European Commission haggled for months over the relicensing of the herbicide amid strong opposition from France and Germany; the EC finally approved glyphosate for 18 months instead of seven years, the original timeframe. On August 26, Italy’s Ministry of Health announced tight restrictions on glyphosate in public spaces. The weed killer is even emerging as an issue in France’s presidential election next year as the nation’s green lobby becomes more influential in President Hollande’s cabinet (France voted against glyphosate’s relicensing) even though French farmers overwhelmingly oppose a glyphosate ban.

Activists here are also trying to sway public policy. The FDA just announced it will start testing some food for glyphosate residue for the first time. The herbicide landed on California’s Prop 65 list of dangerous chemicals; officials in Petaluma, CA have replaced glyphosate with a more natural product that costs more money, is less effective and requires protective gear to apply. Quaker Oats is being sued for using glyphosate to dry its oats yet claiming the oatmeal products are “natural.”

All of these efforts hinge on proving glyphosate is dangerous. An EPA imprimatur that the herbicide is safe and doesn’t cause cancer would devastate the legislative and legal arguments against glyphosate here and abroad. Lawmakers are right to suspect politics is in play and should continue to push a pro-science, common sense and transparent approach by the EPA.

Julie Kelly is a food writer and National Review Online contributor.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Environmental Protection Agency Gina McCarthy Glyphosate Jim Inhofe Monsanto weed killer

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