I likely can’t count the number of times I have spoken or written the words science-based. It is a mantra of sorts. And for good reason. Technology is the most important competitive advantage for Canadian agriculture. This is how we are going to compete with emerging exporters like the Black Sea countries. Modern farming tools and methods are also the reason why Canadian farmers have a fantastic sustainability story to tell. In order to keep these tools and the ability use new and emerging techniques, we must have science-based regulations, both within Canada as with our trading partners.
The alternative to science-based are regulations that are born out of the whims of the latest internet expert. To say that most of these so-called experts are in the category of the snake oil salesmen would be a bit of an insult to the purveyors of snake oil.
Moving away from science-based regulations also opens Canadian farmers up to protectionist measures that are loosely cloaked as environmental regulations or solutions to health concerns. We see living examples of this in the campaign against high-quality Canadian durum wheat in Italy and the Italian Government’s regulations on country of origin labelling.
Glyphosate is one of the products that the internet likes to hate. The theories abound; glyphosate is responsible for autism, glyphosate causes celiac disease, glyphosate is causing cancer, and so on.
Glyphosate is registered for use in more than 160 countries. There is no major regulatory agency in the world that considers glyphosate a health risk. The product has been recently reviewed by the European Food Safety Authority, the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicines Authority. All have concluded that glyphosate is safe for both people and the environment. The European review stated, “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.”
Yet doubt was cast on this scientific consensus by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). In 2015 IARC classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” IARC’s statement has set off a storm of controversy, spawning lawsuits in U.S., raising doubts about the products approval in the European Union and opening up potential trade barriers to Canadian exports.
The U.S. lawsuits have brought information to light that call into questions the scientific processes that IARC followed to reach their conclusions. Did IARC fall into the trap of coming to a conclusion and then looking for evidence?
Evidence coming out of court processes show that IARC dismissed results from a draft of its review that was at odds with its final public conclusion. Reports indicate that the conclusions of multiple scientists’, showing no link between glyphosate and cancer in laboratory animals, were edited or deleted. Comparisons of the draft report and the final publication show ten changes that reversed or deleted scientific conclusions that differed from the final publication.
This evidence calls into question both the conclusion reached by IARC as well as the basic scientific process that is followed by the Agency. Its credibility is at stake. But it is more than that. In the mind of the public, the credibility of science-based regulatory review is also at stake.
The processes for all of the regulatory agencies listed above – European, Australian, Canadian and American – are all public. Citizens and scientists are able to see the processes each of these agencies used to reach their conclusions. The scientific process is open and transparent. This is how it should be. This is the scientific method.
IARC does not share the same level of transparency. Since the revelations in the U.S. legal proceedings, the only statement IARC has made is that the draft versions of its Monographs are confidential. This is not acceptable. IARC must open up its processes and conclusions to peer review. And the Agency must be willing to adjust its conclusions if that is the direction that science leads.
Science is a process of examining the facts to determine the best answer we have today. It does not mean that our understanding cannot evolve over time or that our understanding can’t change. An open and transparent process that is willing to review research that might not support current beliefs are key hallmarks of a science-based agency.
The credibility of science and public confidence in science-based regulations depend on agencies, both within Canada and abroad, meeting these basic standards of transparency. Revelations of recent weeks show that IARC’s processes do not reach this bar. This must change.