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Germany in the weeds: The truth about glyphosate

INTERVIEW: On Monday, Germany voted to keep the Monsanto-beloved chemical glyphosate (used in the notorious herbicide Roundup) on the EU market. Gilles-Éric Séralini, the scientist who exposed Roundup's deadly effects two years ago, isn't surprised.

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Photo by Dwight Burdette, licensed under CC-BY

Yesterday (November 27), against the SPD’s objections and possibly driving a stake into the heart of the hoped-for Grand Coalition, Germany gave the deciding vote in favour of keeping glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s notorious Roundup herbicide) legal in the EU.

Two years ago, Germany presented outspoken biomolecular scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini with its biennal Whistleblower Award for his ground-breaking work and courage in exposing the health risks of that very same chemical. In an interview with us shortly afterward, he explained his research – and predicted, rightly, that glyphosate would stay legal in the EU.

It is the most commonly used herbicide in the world. They spray it on crops and use it to kill weeds in our parks. In Berlin, sidewalks and train tracks are treated with it. Chances are you’ve gotten a whiff of it every time you’ve lain on a well-manicured lawn… or you’ve consumed it in your tap water. No matter what, Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller is part of your everyday diet. And if it’s lethally toxic for rats, chances are that it’s not good for your health either.

That’s what French biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini suggested when he subjected lab rodents to a daily intake of Roundup and a GM maize associated with it. The results: huge tumours, liver and kidney diseases, and sexual hormone disorders. Agro-chemical giant Monsanto, producer of both Roundup and the maize, immediately retaliated in the form of a relentless smear campaign, enlisting scientists and journalists to discredit the study. The journal that published his paper retracted it a year later, sparking further outrage in the scientific community calling for debate over censorship.

Three years of experts’ rebuttals and counter-rebuttals later, Roundup is in trouble. The World Health Organisation is calling for its removal from supermarket shelves and a ban from our fields and gardens. Meanwhile, Séralini’s work with the independent research organisation CRIIGEN and his outspokenness have turned the man into a hero in the fight against the powerful agrochemical lobby. What some have called the “Séralini affair” has triggered an overdue debate on the independence and integrity of the bodies that regulate our food, as well as the need for open access to scientific data. As claimed by the prize givers at the awards ceremony in October: “The preservation of our health depends on whistleblowers.”

Were you surprised by this award coming from Germany?

Well, yes. I knew that the scientific community was behind me, because I received phone calls and letters from all around the world. I didn’t know that the Federation of German Scientists was paying attention, but, you know, unless you’re dealing with lobbyists, good reactions actually take a bit of time. It takes time to read and understand what is going on.

We knew that Roundup causes lethal tumours and kidney and liver disease. Whether the rats got cancer afterwards or not is not the issue.

My critics came from a very small community of about 20 people who have been well identified by now, all from the industry or linked to the industry, scientists who in fact had been involved in testing and authorising the products I was now putting in the spotlight. They’d worked or were working for agencies such as the EFSA (European Food and Security Agency), or the BfR (Federal Institute for Risk Assessment) in Germany, or the EPA in the States. When I published my paper, those scientists were criticising me within 24 hours!

You’re referring to a study that sparked a huge storm when it was published in 2012, and again when republished last year. You investigated the effect, on rats, of the consumption of two Monsanto products: the ultra-popular weed-killer Roundup, and the genetically modified maize engineered to be tolerant to it. Why those products in particular?

We chose Roundup because it’s the major herbicide polluting water and food. Maize is one of the major GMOs in our food, besides soy. This maize, NK 603, which is authorised for consumption, has been made tolerant to Roundup – actually to the major herbicides of the world – and therefore it contains high levels of the herbicide, which ends up in our food. We also used the herbicide itself to understand where the toxicity was coming from. For that, we studied rats who were fed regular maize and given a little bit of Roundup to drink. Not much, in fact: we used the authorised levels in the EU, 0.1 parts per billion. That’s more or less what the German people end up drinking in their water when fields are treated with Roundup!

After a two-year study, you came to the conclusion that there was a link between the consumption of those two products and the development of tumours and kidney and liver diseases.

That’s right. And sexual hormone problems as well. In fact, my group at the University of Caen has published the most on the effect of genetically modified organisms and pesticides on human and mammalian health.

As published in 2012 in the international journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, these conclusions sparked an avalanche of negative reactions. Eventually, after a smear campaign against you, the journal retracted your study, deeming your results inconclusive. Why?

I asked why and they said, “You cannot conclude cancer.” And I said, “Unfortunately for you guys, I didn’t put the word ‘cancer’ in my study.” I only talked about tumours, and any cancerologist knows that tumours don’t always become cancer. Most rats died because the tumours grew so large that they put pressure on internal organs, and became haemorrhagic. So only a few tumours had time to become cancerous. This was not a cancer study, it was a general toxicology study. In this case we knew that Roundup causes lethal tumours and lethal kidney or liver disease, so whether the rats got cancer afterwards or not is not the issue.

But some scientific authorities, and major international organisations like EFSA, criticised your study as inadequately designed, analysed and reported.

Yes. I was one of the experts in EFSA and the French committees before, so I knew that they’d fight it. And I knew they were not qualified to criticise my study, because they were the ones who approved the commercialisation of the same product without any long-term testing.

But what about the actual criticism – the sample of rats was “too small”, the rat species you used was already prone to tumours…

These were stupid arguments. Monsanto had actually used the same rats for their study, in order to get Roundup and transgenic maize on the market. These are common rats used in 250,000 studies all over the world. So if I’m wrong, then 250,000 studies for toxicological assessment are wrong, and we have to resubmit everything. The fact is that I had three to five times fewer tumours in the controls than in the rats fed with Roundup and with GMOs. That’s a convincing statistical difference!

Why would those poor rats be so prone to tumours anyway?

That’s a very good question that I asked myself when they claimed that these rats “can have up to 70 percent mammary tumours and 90 percent pituitary tumours, naturally”. Somehow, it made me think. So with all my scientific friends, I took some samples of the diets given to these lab rats over five continents. And what did we find?

We assayed more than 300 possible contaminants, including all 262 known pesticides, but also PCPs and dioxenes, 22 GMOs, and also heavy metals and so on. So we discovered that the diets given to control rats are so contaminated that it explains why they have tumours anyway. And these are the control rats they use for regulatory tests! We published a paper in July, demonstrating just this: that all the regulatory tests of chemical products all over the world are probably biased, because they use rats with a heavily contaminated diet as controls.

So what did you give to your control group of rats? Organic food?

Yes! Almost that. We made our own food. This was the only scientific way to study the effect of the GMO – we needed to control all the food. So we raised transgenic corn, but also the same variety of non-transgenic corn without pesticides. We knew that our control rats were not only not getting the pesticides and GMOs that the treated rats were getting; they weren’t getting any detectable pesticides or GMOs.

Did you expect such a strong reaction – the smear campaign, the discrediting?

First of all, the ‘storm’ was one or two days after we published, and that’s abnormal because regular scientists cannot read everything through the night and say to the press by the next day that it’s a “fraud”. That’s what former FDA official and GMO supporter Henry Miller said in the magazine Forbes, 24 hours after my results were published. They wanted to defame or discredit me towards the billionaires that put money in Monsanto. They need people to invest in biotechnology, and if it’s dangerous, then they will not invest anymore. So Henry Miller, who defended the non-carcinogenicity of tobacco for Philip Morris in the 1980s, was now saying all kinds of stupid things, all around the world, in order to defend Roundup.

Then Monsanto entered the editorial board of the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, in the person of Richard Goodman, who was the immunotoxicologist in charge of the NK603 transgenic maize, and he became responsible for all biotech papers in the journal. And the previous editor who published my paper was fired. He’s actually back now, and he trusted us to write a review of all the studies on Roundup all over the world – which is a big honour. If this is taken into account, then Roundup will be banned for good.

Image for Germany in the weeds: The truth about glyphosate
Professor Séralini. Photo by Thomas Jouanneau

In June 2014, you actually got to re-publish your paper, in the open-source Environmental Sciences Europe online journal. Did you get more backlash after that?

Yes, but Marianne, the big French weekly magazine, attacked me even before that, saying that my study was a fraud and that my results were written in advance. For that, I could have lost my job. We attacked them for defamation, because they just repeated what Forbes had said. And we won.

Now, the WHO says that Roundup might actually cause cancer – because of its main active ingredient, glyphosate – and more and more countries are calling for it to be banned. Yet Monsanto, backed by the European agency EFSA, claims the regulatory tests they performed for years didn’t show any carcinogenic effect. Who should we trust?

Well, the issue here is that the WHO assessed glyphosate as formulated in Roundup. Of course Monsanto had to perform tests in order to get its product authorised – but they did it on glyphosate alone, which is a scientific fraud, because there are very toxic and carcinogenic adjuvants in the formulation of glyphosate in Roundup. These adjuvants are up to 100,000 times more toxic than glyphosate alone, but they are classified as inert and confidential. And this is the way the industry works.

But I am not in agreement with the WHO using my studies to declare that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. First, because they’re focusing on cancer, and I showed it’s lethal anyway. But also because they’re making a heavy mistake in singling out glyphosate. It is not the most toxic compound in the mixture.

Now EFSA is re-evaluating whether Roundup should still be authorised in the EU. The German agency BfR, which is testing it for EFSA, gave a positive report, right? They said that glyphosate was not toxic.

Yes, because BfR only took into account the tests on glyphosate alone! They have some lobbyists in their ranks… When the Ministry of Agriculture in Germany, or in France or in Italy, assessed the toxicity of the formulated product, always Monsanto’s tests, within one month they said “Yes, it’s corrosive for the eyes and skin, so you should wear gloves and you should wear masks.” That’s written on the bottle. But the long-term assessment of the total formulation was done by only my study.

So what’s going to happen now?

EFSA will make a decision only on glyphosate, and they will probably say what the BfR says. This is the way they have done it throughout history. I don’t trust the agencies because, first of all, they do not do any experiments by themselves. Secondly, they always come through the industry, all the way through, and the industry is doing the experiments alone, on their own products. And thirdly, they keep the results, the raw data, confidential. Basically, they’re making a big mistake.

What about conflict of interest in those agencies? I read reports that 50-70 percent of experts on EFSA’s panels actually had ties to the industry they’re meant to regulate…

The important thing is that, if you are a good minister of health or agriculture, you say to EFSA, “Could you put the blood analysis of the rats tested with glyphosate on the internet so that any medical doctor, any scientist can check what happened?” But EFSA says, “No, sorry, it’s confidential because Monsanto and the EU Commission have said it should be confidential.” As a minister I would take the report and put it immediately in the garbage can, because a confidential report on health is not acceptable!

Ultimately, you can keep the CVs of the experts confidential, I don’t care, I know that there are lobbyists there – a lot! What I would like to see is the raw data of the blood and urine analyses that they’ve made. Results on health and environment should be made accessible to all, and not just to a few members of the industry who accept that Monsanto data, for example, should be kept ‘confidential’.

So you’re calling for open access to public health data, which seems obvious… How do you explain the apathy coming from public authorities and regulatory agencies in this respect? Are the lobbies so powerful that they overrule public safety?

I’ve written a book to try and answer this question, called Culinary Treasures or Hidden Poisons? We’ve found this is due to a very bad habit that started after WWII. Do you know that Zyklon-B was the first insecticide spread on the fields of France, for example? And then they said, “This is confidential, because it is a military product, and we will assess it ourselves, and we will show it to the regulatory authorities” – which had only just then been created. So the regulatory authorities were happy to accept the data from industry as confidential, and there’s been this collusion between the authorities and industry ever since.

Then the states said that they had no money for research, so public research institutes were convinced to cooperate with industry. And that’s the way industry penetrated the labs, and employed the students of the public labs, who became industrial workers, and little by little there was a community of thinking between public labs and the industry within the regulatory agency. And I know this very well because I worked for nine years as an expert on GMOs for the European Community. I have seen all these guys and know them by name, and I know the practices of the industry.

Are you against GMOs?

I am not against GMOs. I am in favour of genetic engineering to make insulin or growth hormones or medical drugs. But it’s a completely different thing if you make poisons or drugs in food and in the field without indications. It’s just dangerous and toxic!

Are we less affected as European consumers? Seventeen EU countries, including Germany, have banned the cultivation of all GMOs. Of course they’re authorised on the EU market, but they’ve got to be labelled…

We tested NK603 because it’s the major GMO maize in the world. But you’re right. Although it’s common in countries like the US, it’s not eaten too much in Europe, because Europe is almost self-sufficient for corn. But you’ll find it in imported products such as corn tortillas, corn chips and cornflakes from the States. They have to label it if it’s more than 0.9 percent per ingredient, but it’s written in very small characters. And also it is not really controlled by the authorities – they don’t care too much.

What about the GM maize cultivated in Spain?

That’s Bt corn, which is a maize that makes its own insecticide. They have it in Spain and some other countries. We’ve actually re-evaluated the tests done by Monsanto for MON 810, which is in one-third of Spain’s maize fields, and we have also recently re-evaluated Bt176, the first transgenic maize authorised for cultivation in Germany – even though it’s not cultivated here anymore. This will come out in the scientific papers soon, but for now, we can say that transgenic corn may also be toxic, not only Roundup-tolerant NK603.

Monsanto holds 80 percent of patents on GMOs, and they also produce the world’s major pesticides… But other biochemical industries like German corporations Bayer and BASF are significant players aswell. People in Bayer Crop Science work with Monsanto, don’t they?

You can keep the CVs of the experts confidential, I don’t care. I know that there are lobbyists there – a lot! But a ‘confidential’ report on health is not acceptable.

Yes, of course. Bayer, BASF and Monsanto collaborate in order to avoid too much regulation on GMOs and pesticides, and also other drugs, petroleum products and so on. So all these companies are united in common interest to avoid health regulations on these products, and they promote short-term testing instead of long-term testing like we came up with, scientifically, in order to avoid any visible side effects.

And how big do you think their influence and pressure on governments is?

It’s the same! And they all go through BfR to be assessed for their products. This is why they’ve all got some people working in BfR. Even if they are competitors on their products, they are united to avoid regulation. And you know that Bayer and IG Farben, a company linked to Bayer, was promoting gas for the concentration camps during WWII. So they made toxic products, and then they said that they are not toxic for fields, at very low levels, but that’s stupid – you have the same secondary effects, and in the long term that causes chronic diseases.

Do you have any hope that these practices will ever change in the future, that recognitions like your whistleblower prize might help?

Yes, because of you, because of other journalists all over the world who are saying we need transparency about these data. Transparency costs zero euros, and it may avoid a lot of long-term chronic diseases that are occurring right now due to these chemicals that they put in our environment and our food. Access to the data will allow any medical doctor, any scientist all over the world to see how unserious, how fraudulent their studies are.

This is why I have high hopes for Germany, because there are laws against the lack of transparency. We actually won against Monsanto in a German court decision 10 years ago! Monsanto lost their case in defending that some data about their transgenic maize couldn’t be made public, right? Yes, Monsanto attacked the German government because they gave us the raw data on the test carried out on the transgenic maize MON 863. They were arguing it was “confidential trade secrets” – but the court in Münster turned them down. So there is already a precedent, which means that it is possible, according to German law, to have transparency.

We have to realise that we’re killing more people than during WWII, because everyone is exposed to residue that has longterm biochemical effects. I am awaiting great help from people who love transparency in order to change this world of fraudulent products.

So there’s hope?

Yes! And you can be detoxified – a lot of plants not treated by pesticides have detoxifying products. Aromatic herbs like parsley, garlic, thyme or turmeric on non-treated fruits and vegetables can stimulate the liver in order to detoxify from Roundup and similar pesticides. But it is important to eat products that have not been treated with pesticides, that are not GMOs.

Okay, but what is the hope of developing cleaner agriculture, better farming practices? Do you believe in this?

Yes! Today, FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, has demonstrated that you can feed the world with organic, local agriculture, but you need to change the habits of cultivation. A lot of polycultures and not big monocultures. You know that 80 percent of GMOs around the world are being used to feed pigs, for rich people, and not to feed the children of the poor. Good, local polycultures without pesticides are the best way to feed the world today.

You’re talking about potential, but you’re also talking about bad news for Monsanto’s business, and most other agricultural and chemical businesses. Do you think we will ever find political will, from anyone, to really stand up against those big lobbies and cut down on pesticides and monoculture?

This will come to an end anyway, because it uses a lot of petroleum. Within 20 or 30 years this petroleum will cost too much to be used for agriculture. Today we are spending 10 kilocalories in petroleum in order to make one kilocalorie of food, and that makes a lot of gas in the atmosphere that changes the climate, so we cannot keep going this way. We have to change rapidly in order to really feed the world, and not to feed industrial pigs.

So in the end, do you consider yourself to be an activist, or even a whistleblower?

I consider myself first as a researcher. Maybe I speak more than other researchers because I publish all my results and I write books and give lectures, so people consider me a whistleblower, but I consider myself a researcher and a normal university professor.

One last question: the prize was given to you and to the ex-drone pilot Brendan Bryant. What do you have in common?

We tried to tell the truth and be in agreement with our conscience, and there are a lot of people around the world who do that.