Showdown looms for billion-dollar UN cancer controversy over weed killer

An important legal showdown is looming for an obscure, United Nations-related research agency that is claiming that the active ingredient in the world’s most popular herbicide, marketed in the U.S. by Monsanto as Roundup, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” It is the same agency that once claimed that coffee was a possible carcinogen.

The claims about the chemical known as glyphosate, originally asserted in March, 2015, have raised concerns about selective suppression of documents that counter the public conclusions of the French-based agency known as the International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, which is affiliated with the U.N. World Health Organization, and charges of conflicts of interest among the agency’s selected experts in the herbicide case.

A torrent of lawsuits is currently underway, seeking undoubtedly huge damages from Monsanto almost entirely based on the agency’s “probable” links between Roundup and non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL) and associated forms of leukemia.

A large number of those legal claims face an important legal hearing in a U.S. District Court as early as December, to decide the actual scientific merits of the case.

As the court date nears, however, the legal and scientific landscape has begun to shift—not necessarily in favor of IARC or the phalanx of plaintiff attorneys. 

A long-unpublished update of a study by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, deemed the most thorough-going examination ever done of the herbicide’s medical effects, appeared in the Institute’s “Journal” earlier this month: it found that the active ingredient known as glyphosate was “not statistically significantly associated with cancer,” including NHL.

(According to Monsanto officials, Roundup makes up about 40 percent of the global market share for the herbicide generically known as glyphosate. Monsanto is currently enmeshed in a $63.5 billion merger with European chemical giant Bayer, which is currently being reviewed by the Justice Department and the European Commission.)

The long-term study, known as the Agricultural Health Study, or Ag Study, due to its emphasis on farm workers exposed to pesticides, essentially repeated conclusions it had originally reached in 2001, based on new analysis that had essentially been completed by 2014.

Repeated congressional queries, including one last August by Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, have tried to plumb the reasons why the updated Ag Study had not featured in IARC analysis—especially since a National Cancer Institute official who worked on the study subsequently chaired the IARC review of glysophate.

The same official has testified in a deposition that the Ag Study information was not considered by IARC because it had not yet been published. Otherwise, he indicated, it might have affected the IARC outcome.

“It’s about time this study was published,” declared Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice-president of global strategy. “It took investigations by Congress to do it.”

Press reports on IARC’s draft findings on glyphosate, which allegedly deleted non-carcinogenic findings, have been publicly dismissed by the U.N. agency as misrepresenting its deliberative process, which was conducted by a specially-designated Working Group that made the ultimate decision.

“Deliberative drafts,” IARC declared in a statement in late October, “are not made public, in order to protect the Working Group from interference by vested interests.” It also declared that “the Working Group does not have to take account prior national regulatory assessments in making its own, independent evaluation.”


IARC’s declaration of independence was clearly aimed at countering a glaring fact about its cancer declaration: It is based on a survey of prevailing scientific literature, while U.S., European, Canadian and Australia safety regulators, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the European Food Safety Authority, and the European Chemicals Agency have found no cancer-causing link with the herbicide.

Jane Michalek (R) drinks soup during an eat-in protest in front of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, Maryland April 8, 2013.
 The protesters are demanding for Genetically Modified Foods (GMO) to be labelled and tested long-term on human beings before being approved, as well as to invalidate the seed patents of Monsanto and other agritech companies. REUTERS/Gary Cameron  (UNITED STATES - Tags: FOOD CIVIL UNREST POLITICS) - GM1E94907Z801

Monsanto has long been accused of causing health hazards. Here was a 2013 eat-in protest in front of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, Maryland April 8, 2013.  (REUTERS)

That has not prevented a number of European governments, many influenced by powerful environmentalist groups or Green political parties, from ignoring their own European Commission authority and balking, via an elaborate consensual process, at a five-year renewal of official government registrations of the chemical. 

Their non-decision to proceed with a renewed five-year registration will be taken up by an appeals panel at the end of November.

Nor has the regulatory view of glyphosate prevented pushback from a variety of researchers against the European Union decisions to differ from IACR. In some cases, they have been led by a former “invited specialist” in the IARC review of glyphosate: Christopher Portier, described as an “Environmental Health Consultant” based in Switzerland.

In another open letter to the EU’s Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Portier led a group of signatories in declaring themselves “independent academic and government scientists from around the world who have dedicated our professional lives to understanding the role of environmental hazards on cancer risks and human health.” 

They urged the Commissioner and the European Commission general to “reject the flawed EFSA finding,” and “to call for a transparent, open and credible review of the scientific literature.”

Portier was previously, according to his biography, a director of the environmental toxicology program at the U.S. National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

He is also listed on the website of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), as a “senior contributing scientist,” where his cited expertise focuses on “the collection, analysis and interpretation of air quality data,” along with work on “efforts to address lead in drinking water and communicate the health impacts of natural gas operations on surrounding communities.”

According to a spokesperson for EDF, Portier “does not and has never worked for EDF on pesticides. Indeed, EDF does not work on pesticides. We don’t track his unrelated outside activities and have no comment on them.”

In a deposition collected in advance of the December 11 legal hearing on the scientific credibility of the anti-Monsanto lawsuits, Portier says that shortly after IARC issued its controversial herbicide decision, he became a paid consultant for two of the leading plaintiff law firms in the lawsuit avalanche now directed at Monsanto.

Among other things, according to the deposition, he agreed that he would work for the firms on an exclusive basis when it came to “Roundup and/or glyphosate-related litigation.”

Through May, 2017, according to the deposition, Portier had received around $150,000 from the law firms for his consulting role.


In response to questions from Fox News, Portier declared that he had fully disclosed his law firm connections in letters he wrote “concerning the scientific quality of the reviews” of glyphosate by EPA, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency, and in his other statements.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) asks questions as former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson testifies about Russian meddling in the 2016 election before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein - RC14569EA390

Repeated congressional queries, including one last August by Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, have tried to plumb the reasons why the updated Ag Study had not featured in IARC analysis—especially since a National Cancer Institute official who worked on the study subsequently chaired the IARC review of glysophate.  (REUTERS)

Those comments, he added, “were not done at the behest of the law firm” and have been done “on my own time, using my own resources, and written by myself or in collaboration with my co-authors.” 

“As to the contractual agreement I have with a U.S. law firm, in 2015 and 2016, I did approximately 30 hours of work in total for the firm,” he said. “That translates to less than 1.5 hours per month.”

His expert work at IARC “pre-dated any work done by me for the law firm.”

The money mentioned in the legal disposition, he said, “was almost entirely earned since March of this year when I was asked to be an expert witness in a U.S. court case on glyphosate.” That task “took more than two months of me working full time.”  

Monsanto’s Partridge said the IARC opinion is “nothing more than fraud.”

“And the evidence speaks for itself,” Partridge said. “IARC’s opinion has no credibility.”

The definitive judgment on that assertion will not come until after trial attorneys and Monsanto’s lawyers face-off in front of U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria over the scientific validity of their evidence. (The timing of that hearing is still in flux.)

Any maybe not even then: a number of American states, led by Missouri, apply a different standard for admitting scientific testimony than the federal benchmark named after a 1993 Supreme Court case and known as the Daubert standard. But the San Francisco judgment, when it comes, is sure to leave an indelible mark on IARC, one way or another.

Meantime, by apparent coincidence, the U.N. agency quietly is undergoing an executive overhaul.

Two days before the Ag Study made its public appearance, a help-wanted advertisement on IARC letterhead announced a search for a new director for the agency, with an application deadline of mid-February, 2018.

The choice will be made in May by IARC’s 25 member-states—the U.S. is not a member—plus the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus.

The current director, Christopher Wild, who took office in 2009 in the first of two consecutive five-year terms, has been a vocal exponent of IARC’s glyphosate-cancer decision. Wild’s term of office would normally end in December, 2018. 

A spokesperson for IARC told Fox News that the timing of the selection of Wild’s replacement is routine, and in keeping with normal IARC procedures.

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on