Like asbestos in the latter half of the 20th century, the herbicide glyphosate lies at the heart of debates which can be deciphered only by taking into account its multiple dimensions. From farmers and trade unionists to environmental and health NGOs, many campaign groups are calling for its prohibition. Vietnam and Thailand have already decided to impose a complete ban on its use, and Luxembourg will be the first country in the European Union to do so, commencing on 31 December 2020. A partial ban has been adopted in a number of other countries.
The pro-glyphosate camp, however, is strong. Where does its strength stem from? First and foremost, from the huge profits reaped by Monsanto, its main producer historically. Global production of glyphosate increased one hundred-fold between 1974 and 2014. It is the active ingredient in the most commonly used herbicides in the world.
Glyphosate is a non-selective (or 'broad spectrum') herbicide. It is used, for example, on cereal and soybean crops, in fruit plantations, and in cotton or sugar cane production. Moreover, it is used at different stages, from soil preparation prior to sowing right up to the stage immediately before harvesting for the purpose of speeding up plant maturation.
However, glyphosate’s commercial success does not present the full picture. Back in the 1990s, Monsanto was developing genetically modified plants resistant to glyphosate. It filed patents on soybean and oilseed rape seeds as well as on the seeds of other marketed plants. In this process, it was adopting a dual strategy involving, on the one hand, the activities of seed companies, and on the other, that of pesticide manufacturers. In this way, a dependent relationship was developed among farmers, with their purchase of GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds entailing an ever-increasing recourse to pesticides.
Today, four groups dominate this dual market, three of which have recently undergone mergers: Bayer bought Monsanto in September 2016; the merger between Dow Chemical and DuPont in 2019 created Corteva, a group specialising in seeds and pesticides; and ChemChina absorbed Syngenta in 2017. The German multinational BASF completes the grouping. On the world stage, the agrochemicals industry is dominated by this four-headed oligopoly, which means that it enjoys a great capacity to influence, manipulate and, if required, corrupt. In the past, each of its components traditionally interacted in harmony with the dominant political power, including during the most tragic moments in history. German companies Bayer and BASF had both been part of IG-Farben under the Nazi regime, whereas Monsanto and Dow were revealed to be manufacturers of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, and ChemChina symbolises the conversion of the Chinese Communist Party elite to capitalism.
Forced to contend with this toxic foursome, campaign groups have mobilised over the past 15 years to demand a ban on glyphosate. To begin with, these were victims’ associations, farm workers’ unions or environmental movements. Their action promoted independent scientific research. An impressive collection of studies on the damage caused to human health and the environment was gradually compiled. While the lawmakers generally remained passive, the judicature made a point of becoming involved. Pressure from the courts was felt most keenly in the United States where, as the number of proceedings brought continued to rise, Bayer’s case crumbled. In March 2019, the group was worth no more than 52 billion euros, less than half of its market valuation when it took over Monsanto. In June 2019, Bayer announced its intention to invest five billion euros into finding alternatives to glyphosate.
This growing dispute exposes the structural bias in pesticide regulation. In the European Union and other parts of the world alike, regulatory agencies assess the risks and make the policy decisions on whether to authorise or prohibit pesticides. The feature common to all these agencies is that they ask manufacturers to provide the relevant information in the matter concerned. The important features of the toxicology-related resources available are provided for use by risk producers. This conflict of interest is concealed by burdensome procedural rules, thus resulting in a significant lack of transparency in the process.
As regards glyphosate, the systemic distortion of the regulatory process has taken on an almost caricatural dimension. Back in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an intergovernmental agency created by the World Health Organization (WHO) which plays no part in regulation, was able to establish that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen. Irrespective of this, the regulatory agencies on both sides of the Atlantic still had no qualms about declaring that glyphosate does not cause cancer. And in December 2017, in spite of major controversy, the European Commission renewed the marketing authorisation for glyphosate for a further five years.
The latest events are the stuff of crime novels. In 2017, the publication of the 'Monsanto Papers' by French daily newspaper Le Monde showed how the multinational was indulging in 'ghostwriting'. It arranged for its employees to write papers with the intention of casting doubt on the dangers of glyphosate. It then had those articles signed by supposedly independent scientists. In March 2019, the General Court of the European Union annulled the decisions by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to refuse access to the toxicity and carcinogenicity studies on glyphosate. Scrutiny of those studies led to an unexpected turn of events when, in February 2020, toxicologist Christopher Portier undertook a reanalysis of the test results underlying the glyphosate authorisation in Europe and identified 37 significant tumour findings in the animals tested. To his mind, the regulatory agencies should have acknowledged that "glyphosate can cause cancers in experimental animals". The icing on the cake was when one of the German laboratories used by Monsanto for three of those tests became embroiled in a scandal in the aftermath of a feature broadcast on 15 October 2019 by German television channel ARD. One former employee bore witness that she had been asked to enhance the results if they did not meet expectations.
Beyond the scandals, the glyphosate issue shows how it is impossible to conduct a public health policy without democracy; nor does democracy come into play only in periodic elections. It is through social mobilisation and those who are powerless or subjugated taking control of their lives that true democracy can emerge and create systems of risk regulation that value human life more than corporate profit•.