About a week after TV’s popular but controversial Dr. Oz devoted most of an episode to new findings that suggest Monsanto’s Roundup causes cancer, he came under attack from medical professionals with agrichemical industry ties.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, vice chairman and professor of surgery, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, has come under attack from Monsanto for pointing out the dangers of Round Up.
Activists have long expressed concern that Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer and its active ingredient, glyphosate, could be linked to increased risk of cancer and other health concerns. Yet a recent study from a division under the World Health Organization has brought the issue into greater prominence than ever.
In turn, Monsanto is responding with a public relations initiative designed to save the reputation of one of its key innovations, which has evolved from being used solely as a weed killer to being a generic chemical found in many products.
There’s been a decades-long debate over the safety of glyphosate, with the Food and Drug Administration first labelling the product carcinogenic in 1985 then changing their findings to label it safe in 1991. The newest report, released last month, is from the International Agency for Research On Cancer, or IARC, a division of the WHO that is considered a top authority on the subject.
IARC classifies every substance on a scale of 1 through 4, with 1 reflecting extremely carcinogenic substances and 4 reflecting substances which are extremely safe. Based on a review of many studies and scientific findings by over a dozen experts, the IARC determined glyphosate falls into category 2A, indicating that glyphosate “probably” causes cancer.
In a video for his YouTube series Risk Bites, Andrew Maynard, a professor of environmental science at the University of Michigan, elaborates on this category, explaining that while these substances are clearly linked to cancer in animals, “if the data on cancer in humans is … still not conclusive, the substance is likely to be put in group 2A and labeled a probable carcinogen.”
Watch what does “probably cause cancer” actually mean?
“In effect,” he continues, “ending up in group 2 is the equivalent of IARC slapping a ‘Take Care’ label on something. They’re letting you know that under some circumstances if you’re exposed to enough of the stuff, you might get cancer.”
The IARC findings have been widely reported in the press, further damaging the image of a company already targeted by the annual March Against Monsanto, which last year took place in 400 cities worldwide. Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon, who hosts a popular but controversial TV health program, devoted several segments of his April 7 program to a discussion of the glyphosate cancer risk.
Glyphosate, created in the 1970s, is the key ingredient in the Roundup and many other herbicides. Much of Monsanto’s business model depends on the sale of its “Roundup Ready” seeds, which grow crops that are genetically modified for resistance to glyphosate. Monsanto has responded forcefully to the charges. A special page on the company’s website is devoted to a rebuttal of the IARC report, which links to a Forbes article that declares, “the reality is that glyphosate is not a human health risk even at levels of exposure that are more than 100 times higher than the human exposures that occur under conditions consistent with the product’s labeling,” and an essay called, “Why moms and dads should feel confident in the safety of glyphosate.”
Monsanto officials have also been quoted as accusing the WHO of having a hidden agenda.
“The conclusion is ‘starkly at odds with every credible scientific body that has examined glyphosate safety,’” Monsanto’s vice president for global regulatory affairs, Philip Miller, told The New York Times.
It is Monsanto’s hidden agenda which may be at work, however, in a recent attack on Dr. Oz’s reputation and his position on the faculty at Columbia University. Ten doctors co-signed a letter asking the university to terminate his position, based on what they call “an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.”
While it’s far from the first time Dr. Oz has been criticized, the timing and authorship of the letter should raise suspicions about the motive. Released about a week after Oz’s attack on Monsanto aired nationwide, the letter has been extensively quoted in the media. Several of the letter’s authors have ties to the American Council on Science and Health, which U.S. Right to Know calls “a front group for the tobacco, agrichemical, fossil fuel, pharmaceutical and other industries.”
The lead author, Henry I. Miller, has been criticized by Sourcewatch for his support of the tobacco industry against cancer scientists. Miller also wrote the Forbes article quoted by Monsanto in their defense of glyphosate. Another, ACSH-linked letter author, Dr. Gilbert Ross, was previously convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy.
Oz plans to defend himself against the attack on Thursday’s program. Though David Gorski, a science writer and surgeon, who blogs under the name “Orac,” has referred to Oz as “America’s Quack,” he called the doctors’ letter a “publicity stunt” that could “backfire spectacularly.”
More reputable scientists like Maynard caution that everyday substances, such as chemicals commonly found in fried or pickled foods, and even overnight work shifts share glyphosate’s 2A classification from IARC. The label, he cautions, “suggests what could happen but it doesn’t indicate how likely it is.”
Still, as the most popular herbicide in the world, the ubiquity of the glyphosate makes the findings worrisome and the Environmental Protection Agency may begin testing food for glyphosate residue in the near future.