Government's Chief Scientist concerned over EPA's handling of glyphosate

Updated

Rod Oram looks into the controversy around the Environmental Protection Agency’s ruling that the ingredient used in Roundup was unlikely to be carcinogenic. He finds the government's Chief Scientist and the Ministry for the Environment have concerns about the EPA's performance.

The Ministry for the Environment, which is responsible for monitoring the Environmental Protection Authority, is querying the EPA over its controversial handling of glyphosate, the widely-used weed killer sold in New Zealand under the name Roundup and other brands.

Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, confirmed to this columnist that the government is talking with the EPA about those concerns. This intervention is led by Dr Alison Collins, MfE’s newly appointed Departmental Science Advisor.

“We don’t fully understand what they [the EPA] do. That needs to be clarified so the public has confidence,” Sir Peter said. The intervention was prompted by “concerns that various interest groups have had about glyphosate.”

Glyphosate was declared "probably carcinogenic to humans" by the WHO in 2015. Its study, and subsequent ones, have prompted a number of countries to tighten or end some uses of glyphosate.

France, for example, has banned local authorities from using it in public areas; use by individuals and households will be banned from January 2019; and the government is drawing up plans for phasing it out of agriculture “in light of current research and available alternatives for farmers.”

In New Zealand, however, the EPA declared last August that “glyphosate is unlikely to be genotoxic [damaging to gene information in cells] or carcinogenic to humans.”

The heart of the glyphosate controversy here is whether the EPA has fulfilled its statutory responsibilities to identify hazardous substance and to manage the risks of them; and concerns about its “net benefit” analysis, which is its ill-defined approach to regulatory trade-offs.

Public confidence in the EPA’s science and processes is paramount given its powerful role as the regulator across vast areas of our environment. The Key government created the EPA in July 2011 to streamline and update environmental regulation:

  • It runs Boards of Inquiry on infrastructure projects, such as major highways, deemed to have national significance. This removes the projects from the RMA processes run by regional governments.

  • It regulates new organisms (plants, animals and GM organisms) and hazardous substances and chemicals.

  • It administers the Emissions Trading Scheme and operates New Zealand's Emissions Trading Register.

  • It manages the environmental impact of specified activities in our marine Exclusive Economic Zone, including prospecting for petroleum and minerals, seismic surveying and scientific research. Our 4.3m sq km EEZ is the fourth largest in the world, and 20 times our land area.

In many of these activities it has considerable powers, with limited avenues for applicants and the public to challenge its decisions.

This is particularly the case with the EEZ. In August, for example, it gave the first approval for seabed mining in New Zealand. The EPA’s four-member committee was split two in favour and two who held “a strong dissenting view,” Allan Freeth, the EPA’s chief executive, said in announcing the decision. The committee chair cast his deciding vote for mining.

Freeth, who has a PhD in population genetics, has led the EPA since September 2015. His previous roles included CEO of Telstra-Clear and Wrightson. The EPA’s chair is Kerry Prendergast, a former mayor of Wellington; and its Chief Scientist is Jacqueline Rowarth, an agricultural scientist and academic.

The glyphosate story goes back a long way. A Swiss scientist first synthesized it in 1950. But in 1970, Monsanto, the US agri-chemical company, began developing and patenting it as a weed-killer. It launched its first commercial product, under the Roundup brand, in 1974. Glyphosate was first authorised for use in New Zealand in 1976.

While Monsanto’s last patents on glyphosate as a weed killer expired in 2000, its other products, such as GM-modified corn, alfalfa and other seeds which are resistant to Roundup, still account for half its sales.

The market for glyphosate is now served by multiple producers offering a wider diversity of formulations. Since 2000, worldwide use of it as a weed killer has quadrupled to more than 850,000 tonnes a year.

Glyphosate "probably carcinogenic"

The latest round of controversy over glyphosate was triggered in 2015 by a report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organisation. It had set up a working group of 17 scientists with relevant expertise from 11 countries including New Zealand to assess the carcinogenicity of five organophosphate biocides including glyphosate.

The group reviewed the scientific literature and concluded that taking the human, animal, and mechanistic data together, glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic to humans."

Since 1971, IARC has evaluated some 1,000 agents and classified only 120 of them as Group 1 (carcinogenic to humans) and 81 as Group 2A (probably carcinogenic). Its other groups are: 2b (possibly carcinogenic); 3 (not classifiable); and 4 (probably not carcinogenic).

The report led to an extensive re-appraisal of glyphosate in many jurisdictions, replete with charges, counter-charges and fierce debates by scientists, regulators, companies and consumers – with Monsanto playing an active role as a provider of evidence.

In recent years, a number of jurisdictions have tightened up on glyphosate, or banned some uses of it. These include California, the Netherlands (which has banned its use in municipal areas spaces such as roadsides and parks), Sweden, Denmark, Brazil and India. In the EU, its relicensing is being bitterly fought.

Rowarth, the EPA’s chief scientist, says the New Zealand agency is constantly scanning the world for new science to evaluate. To that end, it hired Dr Wayne Temple, a former director of NZ’s National Poisons Centre, to review the literature on glyphosate.

The EPA released his 19-page report in August last year. His verdict: “The overall conclusion is that – based on a weight of evidence approach, taking into account the quality and reliability of the available data – glyphosate is unlikely to be genotoxic or carcinogenic to humans and does not require classification under HSNO [Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act] as a carcinogen or mutagen.”

For a comprehensive rebuttal by public health scientists, and some scientists who work with IARC, this blog is useful. It is on SciBlogs, which is hosted and moderated by the Science Media Centre, which in turn is hosted by and receives its government funding through the Royal Society.

The Greens also published this 184-page report on the issue in July.

Rowarth says glyphosate safe if 'used as directed'

In defending the EPA’s report publicly, Rowarth has repeatedly said that glyphosate could be as harmful as IARC has identified. But only under extreme circumstances. It is safe if “used as directed”.

These are the EPA’s directions to members of the public who use Roundup and other glyphosates:

Before you spray:
- Read all instructions on the label and follow them.
- Make sure you are using the right product for the job you are doing.
- Confirm your spray area is not close to water, such as streams, rivers, lakes or ponds.
- Check the weather forecast. Make sure no rain is predicted for at least 24 hours. Avoid spraying when it is windy.
- Clear children and pets from the area, and keep them well away.
- Follow the label advice on the need for protective clothing.

After spraying:
- Wash your hands, face and clothing.
- Keep children and pets away until the spray has dried, or for the amount of time indicated on the label.
- Read the instructions on the label to help you safely dispose of any unused product.

'World leader in net benefit analysis'

Rowarth says the EPA is a world leader for its work on “net benefit” analysis on such environmental issues.

“Our scientists are being invited abroad” to give presentations on the methodology, she said in an interview with this columnist.

Broadly speaking this means weighing up the financial, health and environmental costs of a substance against its economic benefits. For example, Rowarth says, Roundup, and other forms are glyphosate, are highly beneficial to farmers because they reduce weeds and significantly increase crop yields.

“It’s a very difficult calculation,” she says. However much economics goes into the analysis, “ultimately there is a final point that becomes subjective” about wider societal values.

Exactly how does that work? I asked her. “We’re trying to formalise that because more people are challenging decisions.”

Does the EPA have a guide to this methodology? “I’ve been exploring this in press articles…and a document is being prepared internally on this.”

The Listener carried her most recent piece last week. In the first two and a half pages of the four-page spread she explores issues such as ‘chemophobia’. This irrational fear of chemicals is on the rise, and only good science can counter it, she writes.

She also quotes Johan Norberg on the many benefits modern society has gained from chemicals. Norberg is a fellow in the Cato Institute, the leading US neoliberal think-tank. He is also a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, past members of which have included Friedman, Hayek, Popper and von Mises and other fathers of neoliberalism.

'The innovation principle'

Then she turns to glyphosate. She recaps some of the controversy over it, explains how the EPA applies a net benefit analysis to the subject, and quotes Martin Kayser, a medical doctor and senior vice-president of product safety at BASF, the German chemical company, on his call for a different type of regulation.

Rowarth writes: “He has suggested replacing the so-called precautionary principle with an innovation principle and urged a rethink to enable the chemical industry to be a ‘solutions provider with a prerequisite of sound chemical management’.”

When did New Zealand last amend its regulations on glyphosate? I asked her.

“I don’t know’” she replied.

Beyond the Temple report, what other recent risk assessment has the EPA done on glyphosate?

“I’ll check the timelines.”

To make its risk assessment, what data does the EPA have on the volume, use and dosage of glyphosate, and the growth of those in New Zealand? And do those match overseas trends of rapid growth in use, formulations and manufacturers which potentially have increased the risks arising from its use?

“We don’t have those data.”

She thought MfE had the data, but it wasn’t available to the EPA for reasons of commercial confidentiality.

Rowarth said she was unaware of Collins’ inquiries of the EPA about its handling of the glyphosate issues.

*In an earlier version of this column I wrote that MfE was reviewing the EPA’s regulatory work on glyphosate. Before writing that, I had used the word reviewing in my email to Sir Peter, and in a subsequent interview with him. He raised no objection to the word at the time.

However, after the column was published, MfE issued this statement:

"The Ministry for the Environment wishes to correct a statement made on the Newsroom website today.

"The Newsroom item stated that the Ministry is reviewing the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).  That claim was reportedly based on comments from Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

"Both the Ministry for the Environment and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor have confirmed that no such review of the EPA is underway.

“The Ministry for the Environment is responsible for monitoring the EPA’s performance on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, but we have no review of the EPA underway, or any plans to do so. Nor do we play a role in reviewing the EPA’s assessments or approvals of hazardous substances. To do so would encroach on their independence as New Zealand’s regulatory authority on hazardous substances and new organisms,” said Ministry Chief Executive Vicky Robertson.

“My comments about the Ministry for the Environment being in contact with the EPA were not meant to imply that a formal review was underway,” Sir Peter Gluckman said.