Murphy: Taking It Over the Top

November 16, 2017 11:00 AM
Using opponents as a punching bag, while dismissing any shred of credibility on their part, is firmly embedded in our politics. But there’s no place for such tactics in the realm of science.

It’s understandable that a coalition of agricultural organizations would be upset by California’s recent decision to require labeling of glyphosate, better known as Round-up, to warn users that the product is a potential human carcinogen.

Back in July, California added glyphosate to its list of cancer-causing chemicals under Prop 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. The law requires businesses to “warn consumers if their products or facilities contain potentially unsafe amounts of any toxic substances known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

Round-up has been heavily marketed by its manufacturer, Monsanto, as a safer alternative to more toxic herbicides. And with the prevalence of Round-up-ready crop varieties, which allow farmers to treat for preemergent weeds, its application is essential to the majority of larger agricultural operations.

Thus, the lawsuit filed by the ag groups in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California is understandable. What’s far less palatable is the language used to publicize that suit.

Look, I know that contemporary politics have normalized rhetoric that borders on the ridiculous, but the purpose of public relations, as opposed to political speech, is to connect with potential customers or stakeholders, not to ratchet up the volume inside of some partisan bubble.

The idea is to guide people toward a more enlightened understanding of what are typically complex, nuanced issues about which hard data and credible information are difficult to obtain.

The statement issued by the National Association of Wheat Growers on behalf of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit is far from such an approach:

“Agriculture groups from across the country today joined forces to file a lawsuit in federal court against the state of California for ignoring science and conclusions from regulatory bodies around the world in a fundamentally flawed regulatory classification of glyphosate, an environmentally safe and widely used herbicide,” the statement read.

“At issue is California’s July action ignoring their own scientific reviews, as well as studies conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Chemicals Agency and every other leading regulatory body around the world and falsely classifying the environmentally benign herbicide as a probable carcinogen. This erroneous warning is based entirely on a highly controversial and deeply flawed finding by a non-regulatory, French-based foreign body called IARC.”

First of all, IARC, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, isn’t some “French-based foreign body.” Whether one agrees or disagrees with its conclusions, the IARC is an inter-disciplinary cancer research agency of the United Nations’ World Health Organization formed to “promote international collaboration, bringing together skills in epidemiology, laboratory sciences and biostatistics to identify the causes of cancer so that preventive measures may be adopted.”

Yes, IARC headquarters are in Lyon, France, but slamming its credibility based on geography is pure dog-whistle messaging. Its 2015 report that identified glyphosate as a potential carcinogen isn’t definitive proof of the chemical’s toxicity, but neither is it some sort of fake news.

And to claim that “regulatory bodies around the world” have concluded that glyphosate is safe isn’t accurate. In fact, just this week, the European Union voted to renew Round-up’s license for only 5 more years, rather than the customary 10 years. The European Parliament declared that the herbicide’s license should be renewed only until 2022, to give farmers time to adjust, but then banned afterwards.

That’s hardly a confirmation of product safety. Just the opposite.

Also, notice that NAWG’s statement refers to glyphosate being an “environmentally benign herbicide,” meaning that it doesn’t cause problems with soil or water contamination, not that it’s harmless to human health, which is what the California regulation is all about.

Meanwhile, Monsanto is facing hundreds of pending lawsuits alleging damages and/or wrongful death claims over exposure to Round-up. Yes, some of those filings can be chalked up to avaricious law firms, but without substantive evidence of harm, not even the greediest lawyers would be willing to take on such a case.

All About the Messaging
Certainly, there are trade-offs to consider with the use of glyphosate. Without some sort of pre-emergent herbicide use, it’s extremely challenging for growers to transition to no-till farming, which has significant benefits in terms of controlling erosion and the runoff of potential pollutants from irrigation and/or heavy rainfall.

That was never mentioned in NAWG’s screed.

And undoubtedly, there are far more toxic herbicides and pesticides on the market than glyphosate. But that doesn’t mean Round-up is harmless.

I get it that having to label agricultural commodities, and likely many food products, with warning labels is anathema to famers, brokers and processors alike. But claiming that a chemical that can kill weeds — by far the hardiest organisms in anyone’s garden or farm field — poses no possible danger to people who are ingesting it in their daily diets is ill-advised.

The use of herbicides can be understood by politicians and the public as a positive measure on balance — if properly positioned as a product to be carefully handled and judiciously applied, while delivering significant benefits to consumers.

There’s no long-term traction to be gained by slamming scientists or pretending their findings should be summarily dismissed.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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