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Agriculture Minister's trust in pesticide safety puts public health at risk

By Richard Nankin

"I say to all Australians all glyphosate products are safe. The standards and the labelling in the United States is different to Australia. The APVMA as the regulator makes sure the directions and the labelling on glyphosate products is quite clear. Our regulations, and our regulatory reform, is as robust as anyone in the world. I am confident the APVMA has provided the right directions, I am confident if Australians use it as per the label it is perfectly safe."

Federal Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud made these reassuring statements last year in response to news Bayer/Monsanto offered to pay over A$15 billion to settle thousands of class action lawsuits in the US, made by people who claim the company's Glyphosate Based Herbicides (GBH) caused their cancers.

Investigating the facts surrounding this massive settlement offer reveals Minister Littleproud's reassurances are wrong on all counts.

Judgements in the original US court case found the safety directions were not adequate and put users of GBHs at risk of serious injury even if the users followed the label's safety directions in good faith.

The jury concluded that unintended or accidental exposure to GBHs would have occurred, despite following the safety directions, and that exposure whilst following the directions caused or contributed to the plaintiffs' cancers.1 

APVMA's dismal record

The record of our pesticide regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), is not impressive. The APVMA has a shocking track record of keeping pesticides 'under review' and on the market long after comparable regulators remove them.

Neonicotinoids are a current case in point. They have been banned in the EU, NZ and the US because they adversely impact pollinators such as bees, but the APVMA still argues they're safe in Australia if used according to label directions.

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and World Health Organisation (WHO) made a finding that long-term low-level exposure to GBHs was a probable cause of cancer. In response, the US Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and Monsanto conspired together to discredit the IARC and debunk its findings.

The APVMA followed in lockstep when it held its own behind-closed-doors review of the IARC/WHO findings. The APVMA findings from that review dismissed the IARC/WHO findings on the cancer risk with justifications identical to the US EPA's.

Bad smell indicates rot

The US glyphosate court case also found the US EPA acted in collusion with Monsanto and failed to do its regulatory job properly. Neither the APVMA, Littleproud, nor any other relevant ministers have properly addressed the damning court findings against both Monsanto and the failings of the US regulators.

Surely our own National Audit Office has a responsibility to investigate the intimate working relationship between APVMA, the US EPA and Monsanto and the consistent failure of our regulator to fulfil its legislated requirements; especially to properly assess the toxicity of the formulations it approves for use in Australia, as the relevant legislation clearly states they are required to do.

Australian pesticide labelling laws are not much better or different from those in the US. Has the Minister or his advisers ever had a serious look at the label on a bottle of Roundup? Whilst there are some minor differences in how toxic pesticides are labelled in each country, the safety information on the GBHs sold in Australia are woefully inadequate, outdated, obscure and technically wrong.

The label invite users to go online to read a "safety data sheet".2 How many people actually do this? These online guidelines are far more cautious and clearly contradict the inadequate and technically incorrect safety guidelines written on the product label. Worse still, this online Safety Data Sheet, information that the Australian regulator uses, are virtually identical to outdated and incorrect US Safety Data Sheets.

APVMA's scandalous formula regulation failure

The APVMA is not capable of requiring proper safety directions on the labels of the almost 500 GBH formulations it allows on the shelves in Australia, because it refuses to investigate beyond the studies provided to it by the chemical companies.

Just like the US EPA, APVMA requires no testing of the actual products we all get exposed to, instead only requiring and taking into account safety testing of the so-called primary 'Active Ingredient'. Neither APVMA nor the US regulator knows, nor seems to care to find out, how toxic the actual formulations on the shelves really are.3,4 The scale and implications of its regulatory failure is truly scandalous.5

The story of how Monsanto deceived the public and corruptly influenced the US EPA are laid bare in the book that provided the foundations for all the court cases ‒ Carey Gillam's book "Whitewash", which is based on a mountain of astounding internal Monsanto documents. The evidence shows the company acted over many years with the intent to manipulate public discourse and deceive the academic and farming communities. It details how they do this by secretly funding front groups and having their own ghost-written studies submitted for publication as apparently independent scientific papers.6

Science vs. 'Regulatory Science'

The APVMA practices what it calls 'Regulatory Science'. This is a scientifically meaningless and outright deceptive term used to justify why they actively debunk and question the validity of any independent scientific and epidemiological evidence that does not fit the interests of their clients – the chemical companies.

Almost every one of the reams of peer-reviewed independent scientific studies finds GBHs far, far more toxic than found in the studies paid for by Monsanto. Clearly, there are two types of science – "independent science", which is all the research and studies conducted outside of corporate funding and influence, and "corporate science" – the scientific studies paid for by chemical companies.

The utter failure of the APVMA to consider, accept or take into account independent science is a scandalous failure of such scale and consequence it could well justify a Royal Commission. How far does Monsanto's influence reach? Who is responsible for allowing our regulator to become so clearly captive to corporate interests? 

More to come

Lawsuits claiming GBHs are causing people's cancers will continue despite the most recent and historically massive settlement offer in the US. After all, the court findings accept the evidence that Monsanto has known for years its products likely cause cancers and other diseases.

There are dozens and possibly hundreds of cases still pending in Australia. As for the over 95,000 individuals in the US suffering the historically rare cancer Non Hodgkins Lymphoma, and who have lodged claims there, it appears many claimants will not accept this settlement offer.

Then, of course, there are all the court cases pending in the rest of the world. The ultimate compensation payout looks set to significantly eclipse the current A$15 billion on offer for US claimants and may well bankrupt Bayer/Monsanto. The final payout figure from the injury and premature deaths caused by GBHs will likely make this latest offer pale into insignificance. The damage to our health and our environment from the huge amounts of GBHs being used around the world may well be immeasurable. 

It is time for a public investigation to expose and fix the shortcomings and failures of our regulator of pesticides in Australia. It is time we faced the reality that the APVMA is suffering from Regulatory Failure Syndrome and that its systemic failure to fulfil its legislated duties has put at serious risk public health, the health of our environment and the reputation we have for "clean and green" exports.

Richard Nankin is a freelance writer and organic farmer.

References

  1. Jury Verdict Form Superior Court of California, Dewayne Johnson V. Monsanto, Aug 10 2018
  2. Roundup UltraMax Material Safety Data Sheet
  3. https://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/FDN_Glyphosate_FoodTesting_Report_p2016-3.pdf
  4. Gillam, Carey 2017, 'Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science', Island Press
  5. https://usrtk.org/pesticides/glyphosate-health-concerns

Published in Chain Reaction #139, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, May 2021. www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction

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