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Postcard from Brussels: Spotlight again on world's most widely used weed killer
EU lawmakers seeking answers on science as they ponder glyphosate renewal
It’s been a little over five years since I last visited Brussels, Belgium as an invited guest of the European Parliament to testify about my 20 years of researching and reporting on the world’s most widely used herbicide - glyphosate. The chemical is best known as the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand.
The Parliament subsequently voted to ban glyphosate, and the European Commission only narrowly missed confirming that sentiment when Germany’s agriculture minister contradicted German leadership by casting the deciding vote that kept glyphosate on the market. (A few months later German-based Bayer bought Monsanto. Just a coincidence, right?)
But the renewal came with a caveat - the license would be reviewed again after five years, and that is where the European Union sits now, once again locked into a debate over both the safety of glyphosate and what the agricultural industry says is the necessity of glyphosate.
So here I am again - back in Brussels as a new vote looms later this year. The battlelines are drawn as they always seem to be: independent scientists, health advocates and environmentalists are advocating for a ban based on evidence the chemical can cause cancer and other health problems, while the chemical companies that profit from glyphosate sales and industry-backed farm groups are pushing for continued uninterrupted use, saying the concerns lack valid science and that glyphosate is essential to agriculture.
I was fortunate to be invited back to Brussels as part of a group associated with a new, award-winning documentary film called Into the Weeds, which presents many of the grim details laid out in my two books (Whitewash and The Monsanto Papers). The saga is one of corrupted regulators that favor corporate science over independent research; the overwhelming amount of independent scientific evidence tying glyphosate to myriad health and environmental harms; and the devastation wrought on countless human lives. (Disclosure: Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal bought the documentary rights to the books and lists me in credits as “story consultant.”)
The film screened Wednesday evening in Brussels to a packed house; earlier our group spent time at the European Parliament, the EU’s lawmaking body.
A “crucial” time
In an address opening the film, Anja Hazekamp, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) who supports a glyphosate ban, said the next months will be “crucial.” She called on the European Commission to “finally start protecting humans, animals and the environment.”
“Despite all the evidence that glyphosate is a threat for the health of animals, humans and the environment, the European Commission keeps reauthorizing this terrible pesticide,” Hazekamp said. “At the end of this year the European Commission will finally make a long-term decision on glyphosate, and it is therefore of paramount importance that the facts presented in this documentary are finally taken on board by the European Commission and the other policy makers.”
Accompanying the film to Brussels was scientist Chris Portier, a former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a former director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Prior to CDC, Portier was with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences where he served as director of the Environmental Toxicology Program.
Portier participated as an expert during the World’s Health Organization’s cancer agency review of glyphosate in 2015 that classified glyphosate as probably carcinogenic to humans.
In Brussels he told attendees to the film screening how regulators repeatedly have bent the rules to ignore or twist scientific findings in ways that allow them to keep glyphosate on the market. He reiterated what he has said countless times - that extensive scientific evidence ties the chemical to cancer. Portier has been an expert witness for plaintiffs in multiple lawsuits against Monsanto brought by people alleging they developed cancer due to Roundup exposure.
More than a cancer concern
Also speaking in Brussels as part of the group supporting the film was scientist Daniele Mandrioli, coordinator of research on glyphosate at the Ramazzini Institute of Bologna, Italy.
Mandrioli said new research results show various harmful health effects from glyphosate exposure at levels currently considered to be safe by European standards.
Mandrioli told members of the European Parliament that the ongoing “Global Glyphosate Study” has recently confirmed in humans prior alarming findings found in animals - that glyphosate can have disruptive effects on sexual development in newborns. Among the observations were disruptions to the endocrine system, including increased testosterone levels in females exposed to glyphosate. The researchers found an “elongation of anogenital distance, which anticipates different potential problems” correlated with hormone imbalance in newborns that could impair development, Mandrioli said.
As well, glyphosate exposure at doses considered safe triggered alterations in the microbiome, impacting beneficial gut bacteria and fungi, he said.
“When disrupted, many metabolic conditions, many diseases, have been connected with these alterations,” Mandrioli said in a press conference before meetings at Parliament. The evidence is “solid,” he said.
“We are providing evidence for the all the global population,” he said.
Also in Brussels with our group was Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, the California groundskeeper who sprayed large quantities of RangerPro, a highly concentrated version of Roundup, and who became the first plaintiff to win a court case alleging the glyphosate-based products cause cancer. I chronicle Johnson’s battles - against cancer and against Monsanto - in my second book, and his story is featured in the new film.
Johnson shared his experiences with Parliament members and in a panel discussion after the film, urging action to protect people from having to endure the injustice that comes with cancers that could be prevented.
It is a miracle of modern medicine that Johnson, the father of two teenage sons, is still alive. Before the 2018 trial against Monsanto, doctors told him he would certainly be dead within 18 months. When I first met him several years ago, he was in near-constant agony as cancerous lesions covered his entire body, and even the slightest movement of clothing across his fragile skin burned like fire. He told me then that he was determined to outlive his dire diagnosis, and so far, through a combination of regular radiation and chemo treatments, Johnson has thwarted death just as he thwarted Monsanto’s efforts to beat his argument that exposure to the company’s weed killer caused his disease.
Still, he has lost too many days and nights - years - struggling through immense pain and fear, and with the knowledge that his family lives with the fact that they could lose him all too soon. His story is heart-breaking, noted by the tears shed in the audience at the screening Wednesday night.
But he is only one of too many who have suffered and continue to suffer.
In the months ahead, Europe has a chance to change that.