Glyphosate nontoxicity: the genesis of a scientific fact

Article · September 2015with680 Reads
DOI: 10.4024/08CU15A.jbpc.15.03
Repetition of a 1978 experiment on the toxicity of glyphosate chemicals in water-flea Daphnia magna showed surprising results. In the 31 years which had passed between the two series of experiments, the toxicity of glyphosate had apparently become 300 times stronger! Further investigation into this enigmatic paradox discloses unfortunate aspects of laboratory researcher cultures as well as fundamental challenges in current regulatory approval of chemicals and the epistemology of risk-assessment.
© 2015 Collegium Basilea & AMSI
doi: 10.4024/08CU15A.jbpc.15.03
Journal of Biological Physics and Chemistry 15 (2015) 89–96
Received 10 May 2015; accepted 4 June 2015 89
When biochemical inventions or new chemical compounds
with a potentially large impact on health or the
environment are to be assessed for approval and release
onto the market, it is of the utmost importance that
possible effects are investigated and anticipated. In our
world, many such inventions and novel products emerge
from commercial initiatives. Often, even discoveries
made in the publicly funded laboratories of universities
and state research institutions are put on the market by
private commercial interests [1].
The primary assessment of any novel chemical will
evaluate whether the substance actually works as intended
and whether it has any unintended effects, according to
defined tests and anticipated categories of results. In
order to safeguard this precautionary approach, society
has developed norms for testing and evaluation within
regulatory, institutional and administrative framework of
national and international bodies. Authorities such as the
World Health Organization (WHO), the Organization for
Economic Coöperation and Development (OECD), the
European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the United
States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) and
Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) should be
mentioned as important sources of scientific advice for
policymakers; they collect relevant evidence and assess
the possible negative effects of products in order to
establish guidelines for safe use. The resulting regulatory
framework is seen as governing the actions and impact of
the chemical industry, the biomedical industry and the
food-producing industry.
Policies regarding individual products, drugs and
chemicals are thus regulated on the basis of findings from
scientific research. The complex ways in which individual
tests and research results are produced, collected and
assembled into the foundations of regulatory documents,
policy guidelines and norms of decision-making makes it
worthwhile to take a closer look at the underlying
mechanisms involved.
It is not uncommon that research conducted by
individual scientists or communities of scientists show
contradictory results on the same subject, possibly due to
using different methods or interpreting data differently.
Numerical data are often challenging to interpret, with
various possible statistical analyses and measures of
significance broadening the standard methods of
assessment. The diversity of views can thus stem from
differences in methodology and individual interpretation
of evidence. Less evident, and seemingly objectively
irrelevant, factors can also influence the direction of
scientific conclusions, such as the economic implications
of certain research findings, prevailing science-based
policies or simple personal conflicts and rivalry. This all
enhances the importance of good clear research
protocols and defined methods for data collection and
interpretation, thus making research findings reproducible.
Finally, we must acknowledge that scientific methods,
normality of research procedures and the daily routines in
the laboratory are all influenced by what has been
described as “the professional culture of scientists” [2].
In this context it is important to realise that our society
expects the industry itself to provide the main evidence
for the safety assessment of their chemicals. Thus, the
responsibility for carrying out testing and interpreting the
data has been delegated to the industry that aspires to
place commercial products onto the market. Some
independent researchers have voiced clear reservations
against such autonomy, propagating the view that trust is
good but control is better [3].
*E-mail:; tel: +4799585427; fax: +4777646100
Glyphosate nontoxicity: the genesis of a scientific fact
Marek Cuhra1, 2, *
1GenØk – Centre for Biosafety, The Science Park, P.O.Box 6418, 9294 Tromsø, Norway
2Faculty of Health Sciences UiT, Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, Norway
Repetition of a 1978 experiment on the toxicity of glyphosate chemicals in water-flea
Daphnia magna showed surprising results. In the 31 years which had passed between the
two series of experiments, the toxicity of glyphosate had apparently become 300 times
stronger! Further investigation into this enigmatic paradox discloses unfortunate aspects of
laboratory researcher cultures as well as fundamental challenges in current regulatory
approval of chemicals and the epistemology of risk-assessment.
Keywords: flexibility of scientific facts, glyphosate toxicity, scientific fraud
90 M. Cuhra Glyphosate nontoxicity: the genesis of a scientific fact
JBPC Vol. 15 (2015)
The following case concerns the risk assessment of a
chemical compound that has gradually become the most
important agrochemical globally. The case is based on
data from hitherto confidential product information in the
archives of the US EPA, extracted from 21 individual
safety studies and related documentation, which was
obtained through a recent Freedom of Information Act
request [4].
In 1978 a group of scientists at the Analytical
BioChemistry (ABC) laboratories in Columbia, Missouri
were commissioned by the chemical company Monsanto
to test a new, promising chemical. The substance
was glyphosate and Monsanto had high expectations for
it; it was found to have very promising effects on
practically all kinds of weeds in agriculture. Glyphosate
was initially proposed as a selective herbicide, only active
against growing plants and thus ideal for field clearance
prior to sowing.
In order to assess possible undesirable effects of
glyphosate, the scientists at ABC carried out tests using
nontarget organisms and human models. Several of those
laboratory tests were designed to assess glyphosate
toxicity towards aquatic organisms such as fish and
invertebrates. Researchers William A. McAllister and
Alan D. Forbis of the ABC research team assessed the
immediate and long-term toxicity of glyphosate in aquatic
invertebrates by testing glyphosate in the common water
flea Daphnia magna, a universal indicator organism
used in hundreds of research laboratories all over the
world. In 48-hour short-term studies (mortality testing)
the scientists saw no effect for concentrations of up to
560 mg/L and the resulting EC50 value (the concentration
at which 50% of Daphnia die in 48 hours) was
determined as 780 mg/L. Using the toxicity categories
valid at the time, the researchers concluded that the
results “would place technical glyphosate into the
category of practically nontoxic” [5]. Another ABC
test, of the isopropylamine (IPA) salt of glyphosate in
D. magna, was reported a few years later and, apparently,
showed even lower toxicity, yielding an EC50 value of
930 mg/L [6]. Furthermore, the research records show
that concentrations of up to 50 mg/L of glyphosate in the
test water had no negative effect in long-term (21 days)
experiments. The data produced by ABC were submitted
to the US EPA and approved a few years later. The
results were actively used by both Monsanto and
regulatory authorities as evidence for the nontoxicity of
glyphosate herbicides for aquatic invertebrates. Along
with the results from over 250 other experiments [7],
these results from the ABC laboratories were later
compiled into an extensive ecotoxicological risk
assessment for glyphosate and Roundup (a commercial
herbicide formulation in which glyphosate is the main
active ingredient) published in a reputable academic
journal [8]. The nontoxicity of glyphosate had thus
become a scientific fact. The problem was, however, that
the mentioned data produced by the ABC laboratories
could not be subsequently reproduced by other researchers
repeating the experiments. The differences were not
negligible, since the subsequent research [9–12, 33]
showed these chemicals to be up to 300 times more
toxic than reported by ABC.
In the definition given by Polish scientist Ludwik Fleck,1
A fact is supposed to be distinguished from transient
theories as something definite, permanent, and
independent of any subjective interpretation by the
scientist” [13]. Another simple definition can be
extrapolated from the metaphors “The Cat is on the Mat”
and “Brains in a Vat” presented by Hilary Putnam in his
analysis of observable fact [14]. Either the cat is on the
mat, or the cat is not on the mat. The research done by
McAllister and Forbis at ABC was of exactly this simple
nature; at a given concentration of the specific chemical,
the individual daphnid was either alive or dead. The fact
in this experimental setup is derived from simple counting
of daphnia alive versus daphnia dead in progressively
increasing concentrations of the chemical, yielding binary
data which are routinely processed in probit regression
analysis to determine the exact EC50. In this scientific
procedure, there is very limited room for subjective
interpretation that could potentially influence the validity
of the scientific fact. This type of scientific research can
be seen as observation in its purest form; the daphnid is
either dead or alive. Still, we get this surprising report
from relatively high concentrations of the chemical; the
daphnids were reported as seen to be alive by McAllister
and Forbis, but according to subsequent findings by other
researchers, they would be expected to be dead. Hence,
McAllister and Forbis saw the cat on the mat, in a
situation where no other scientist has apparently been
able to see it.
How can this be possible? Could it be that
McAllister and Forbis imagined that they saw the cat?
1 In his pre-World War 2 book “Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache: Einführung in die Lehre vom
Denkstil und Denkkollektiv” [13], which was translated into English and published in 1979 as “Genesis and Development of a
Scientific Fact” (a title unfortunately impoverished by translation).
Glyphosate nontoxicity: the genesis of a scientific fact M. Cuhra 91
JBPC Vol. 15 (2015)
This is highly unlikely, as their research protocol clearly
states the proportions of daphnids that were alive, as well
as those that were dead. At the no-effect concentration
of 560 mg/L, McAllister and Forbis reported they saw all
30 daphnids alive 48 hours into the experiment. Or,
maybe what McAllister and Forbis were actually
reporting was not “the cat on the mat”, but instead “the
cat on the carpet”. And what might the difference be?
Well, there are several chemicals named glyphosate but,
in herbicide formulations, only various glyphosate salts,
such as the commonly used isopropylamine derivative,
are of relevance. This type of glyphosate is water-soluble
and constitutes the active ingredient in herbicide
formulations. Thus, glyphosate IPA salt is often labelled
simply glyphosate. But primary forms of glyphosate from
earlier stages in the production process are also
commonly known as glyphosate. Such primary forms
have very low solubility in water and are thus useless as
herbicides intended to be diluted with water prior to use,
as glyphosate herbicides are. But, if this was the chemical
that Monsanto supplied to McAllister and Forbis, and if
this was the chemical that McAllister and Forbis
subsequently tested, then both parties may have engaged
in a type of scientific fraud. It is not a scientifically
accepted test of toxicity to test water-insoluble chemicals
in a D. magna toxicity study. It simply would not make
sense, the chemical would be at the bottom of the
container in its crystalline form and the test animals
would not be affected by it. When reviewing the
analytical report prepared by McAllister and Forbis, it is
interesting to note one of several hand-written additions
to the typed report. It is in the section describing the
chemical tested, where the typed wording “glyphosate”
has been supplemented by the US EPA code #103601.
This chemical code identifies N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine
monoisopropylamine salt, or simply the IPA salt of
glyphosate, which, as mentioned, is the most relevant
chemical form of glyphosate in herbicide formulations [15].
But, why was the hand-written chemical identity specifying
the IPA salt added to the report? Was it to specify, or
was it actually to falsify? And who did it, and when?
The mentioned standardized EC50 D. magna test of acute
toxicity is an example of an exact test, with clearly
defined research endpoints that can be used in assessing
immediate unintended effects of (in this example) a new
agricultural pesticide on the biodiversity of lakes and ponds,
defined as “nontarget aquatic invertebrate organisms”.
Several detailed operating procedures are defined for this
specific test, among which the best known and most
widely used are industry tests such as the ASTM D. magna
acute toxicity test, the ISO-standard D. magna acute
toxicity test, international organization tests such as the
OECD 202 D. magna acute toxicity test and national
tests such as the US EPA OPPTS 850.1010 Daphnia
acute toxicity test. In addition to those, there are
numerous tests applied at institutional level, such as the
guidelines we use in our D. magna testing laboratory at
the University of Tromsø and similar guidelines used by
our colleagues here in Norway and abroad. To fully
understand the limits of testing, we must bear in mind that
these mentioned guidelines are for only one single test,
namely the assessment of acute toxicity in aquatic
invertebrates, represented by the test species Daphnia
magna (sometimes other similar species of daphnids are
used, but the main principles are the same). Such a test
only investigates one singular component of the tested
substance, the endpoint being the immediate (acute)
toxicity to aquatic invertebrate organisms, measured as
mortality (or paralysis or immobility) in Daphnia. In
addition to such daphnia tests, tests using algae, fish, insect
larvae and other categories of organisms from freshwater
environments are carried out. For some categories of
organisms, such as fish, it is recommended to test several
different species. Typically the EC50 mortality tests are done
for an exact short interval, most often 24, 48 or 96 hours,
according to test protocol and species.
Another category of test guidelines is used to assess
possible long-term toxic effects (chronic toxicity tests) in
aquatic invertebrates. Among these, the US EPA test for
chronic toxicity in freshwater organisms [16] and the
OECD 211 D. magna reproduction test [17] are recognized
as international standards. Such lifelong tests are well
suited to reveal possible less-evident toxic effects on
growth, long-term survival and reproduction.
The scope of all these tests is to garner evidence for
possible effects on aquatic invertebrates investigated
through the indicator species Daphnia and, thus, the
conclusions are limited to that. For a holistic approach to
possible environmental effects of a specific compound, it
is necessary to organize testing with many additional
species and categories of organisms, such as plants,
microörganisms, invertebrates, birds, mammals and humans.
Tests restricted to in vitro laboratory environments must
be supplemented by assessment of ecosystem effects
through field studies. Such holistic approaches are
increasingly relevant for chemicals such as new pesticides
(comprising herbicides, insecticides, fungicides etc.) and
other potentially harmful compounds intended for
deliberate release into the environment (other régimes
apply for the testing of pharmaceutical chemicals, with a
direct focus on human health).
92 M. Cuhra Glyphosate nontoxicity: the genesis of a scientific fact
JBPC Vol. 15 (2015)
Mostly, such tests are organized and financed by the
industrial interests behind the product. Thereby the industry
takes not only financial and practical responsibility for the
relevant tests, but also accepts a substantial ethical
challenge; conducting testing in the correct manner and
ensuring the transparency and reproducibility of such
testing. The results obtained are presented to the
relevant national or international regulatory authorities
when applying for authorization to release the product
into the consumer market or the environment. In order to
comprehend and truly understand the scientific results
from such specific individual tests in context, it is
common to work up some sort of synthesis. One such
synthesis is the already mentioned review [8] of
glyphosate and Roundup ecotoxicity. The questionable
data from McAllister and Forbis penetrated not only into
that review, but can be found subsequently in innumerable
pieces of documentation, ranging from simple data sheets
to international policy statements on glyphosate herbicides.
In some of these documents the original source of the
data has fallen into oblivion, such as in a 2010 review on
glyphosate by Syracuse Environmental Research
Associates Inc. (SERA), which reports the 780 mg/L EC50
value as originating from a US EPA 1993 RED2 on
glyphosate [18, 32]. The data from ABC on glyphosate
toxicity in Daphnia travelled overseas, as they are now
incorporated into European Union legislation in the
European Commission working document on glyphosate
[19]. In this important document, it is the EC50 value of
930 mg/L from the ABC 1981 study conducted by Forbis
and Boudreau that is used, presumably because this
study specifies more clearly that the tested type of
glyphosate is the IPA salt, or possibly since this specific
study shows even less toxicity than the 1978 study by
McAllister and Forbis. In 1994, the WHO published its
environmental health criteria (EHC) report on glyphosate
[20], as an extensive review based on a substantial part of
the evidence available at the time. The report has a
detailed chapter on ecotoxicological effects in aquatic
invertebrates, but it is rather contradictory, since although
it presents the latest data on Daphnia sensitivity to
glyphosate and glyphosate herbicides, it is also infected
by the results originating from ABC, hence the
“synthesis” is quite confusing. In addition to the
unpublished ABC studies mentioned before, WHO also
quotes a newer ABC study on chronic toxicity of
glyphosate in Daphnia from 1989, where ABC
researchers reportedly found NOEC levels of 100 mg/L.3
Based on the trade record of the ABC laboratories, again,
this is a test result that we must interpret as highly
questionable evidence of safety. Paradoxically, the WHO
report presents a table of test conditions, specifying
factors such as the pH and hardness of the test water in
the 1978 study by McAllister and Forbis, but this is some
sort of mistake, since the original report does not specify
these parameters. The latest known revision of glyphosate
ecotoxicity is the above-mentioned 2010 evaluation of
glyphosate by SERA for the USDA Forest Service [18].
In this cornerstone review on glyphosate, the following
quote can be found: “McAllister and Forbes 1978b,
MRID 00108172. This study is cited on several
MSDSs”, indicating that the ABC results have been used
as evidence of safety in several material safety data
sheets for different glyphosate herbicides. A brief search
discloses at least six such data sheets for different
commercial glyphosate herbicides in present use in the
USA, which have not been actually tested for aquatic
invertebrate toxicity; the data sheets merely quote the
780 mg/L value from McAllister and Forbis. There is
reason to believe that these six formulations contain the
IPA salt of glyphosate, as this is the main type of
glyphosate used in herbicide formulations.
The SERA report is a somewhat overwhelming and
confusing document, where terms are mixed and not all
conclusions are justified. Nevertheless, from such an
enormous review some interesting information can be
extracted if one has the necessary patience.4 Also, even
though questionable, the reference material informs us
on other aspects of this case: On page 175 we find the
following reference: “MRID: 101533 Danhaus, R.;
Lenox, E.; Dubelman, S.; et al. (1982). Dissipation of
Alachlor in Field Soils following Preemergent
Applications of Lasso ME Alone or in Tank Mix
Combinations with Roundup, Atrazine, Dyanap,
Metribuzin or Cyanazine: MSL-2109 (unpublished
study received May 10, 1982 under 524–344;
prepared in cooperation with ABC Laboratories, Inc.
and Craven Laboratories, Inc., submitted by
Monsanto Co., Washington, DC; CDL:070841-D).
As we shall see in the following, this information is
2 The US EPA Reregistration Eligibility Decision (RED) on glyphosate [32] is the main regulatory document on glyphosate in the
US public administration.
3Title: 21-day prolonged static renewal toxicity of glyphosate technical to Daphnia magna. Unpublished study.
4SERA 2010 supplement 1 is itself quite a bulky document of 464 pages with a collection of 5652 references to “Registered
submitted studies on glyphosate” as of March 2010. It must be mentioned that although 20 of these SERA references describe
ecotoxicological effects of glyphosate in Daphnia, only 3 references are to peer-reviewed publications that we have been able
to access in our work on the subject. The remaining 17 references are to unpublished studies from industry.
Glyphosate nontoxicity: the genesis of a scientific fact M. Cuhra 93
JBPC Vol. 15 (2015)
important, as it indicates some degree of formalized
coöperation between the two mentioned laboratories.
Back in the late 1970s several commercial laboratories
working for Monsanto were involved in assessing the
toxicity of the new flagship herbicide. One of these
service providers was Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories
(IBT), which at the time was working for several
manufacturers of pesticides. But then, unexpectedly, the
IBT laboratories were visited by inspectors from the US
FDA and exposed as having systematically produced
fraudulent data [21]. A few years later Craven Labs,
another laboratory working for Monsanto, was exposed
by a “pesticide industry task force”, and the US EPA, as
having committed scientific fraud [22, 23]. The president
of IBT was sentenced to four years in prison, but
allegedly never served a day of his sentence, because
“his heart was bad” [24]. As late as 2001 the US EPA
conducted a campaign directed towards “the environmental
analytical laboratory community” [25]. Following a series
of scandals in the years 1976, 1990 and 1997–2000, which
exposed widespread systematic fraud and misconduct in
analytical laboratories working for industry clients, the
US FDA led several such campaigns to reduce malpractice.
This also led to the establishment of laboratory standards,
defining first routines of Good Laboratory Practice in
1979 (following the IBT scandal). Later, a task force of
inspectors was established, including a hotline for
whistleblowers and new rounds of information targeted
at the laboratory industry [22, 23]. In a 2002 report update
from the US EPA Laboratory Fraud Work Group, the
EPA states; “the ramifications stemming from a
laboratory’s falsifications spread far beyond the
specific tampered results; once the laboratory’s
integrity is compromised, all the data generated by
that laboratory is questionable” [26].
Although two of the laboratories involved in quality
assurance and testing of Monsanto products were found
guilty of falsifying scientific data, this does not
necessarily imply that the above-mentioned data on
glyphosate toxicity in Daphnia produced by the ABC
laboratories is less credible. The mentioned documenta-
tion from the SERA supplements indicates commercial
coöperation between the Craven and ABC laboratories
at the time of glyphosate testing and before Craven was
found guilty of organized scientific fraud, but so far
there is no indication that there has been any systematic
irregularity in the work that ABC produced for
Monsanto. However, when we look closely at the test
protocols submitted by Mcallister and Forbis, several
interesting questions arise.
First of all, the raw data for probit analysis look a bit
too perfect. From my own experience, so far having
conducted approximately 20 separate acute toxicity tests
in Daphnia magna [12], I would expect to see the data
express less geometric symmetry in the two lower effect
concentrations. But that is by no means conclusive
evidence of fraud. However, in their probit analysis,
McAllister and Forbis use very closely spaced concentra-
tions (560, 650, 750 and 870 mg/L) and produce an EC50
value of 759.7 mg/L, with an impressively sharp 95%
confidence interval of 740.8–779.9 mg/L. We recalculated
the EC50 value from the data provided by McAllister and
Forbis and found their computations to be correct. But it
is not acceptable scientific practice to present the high-
end limit of the confidence interval as the EC50 value.
The calculated EC50 value of 759.7 (760) mg/L should
have been used, not the 780 mg/L value obtained from the
top of the confidence interval. This may seem like a small
detail, but it is a clear indication of unsound scientific
practice. The review of these reports of research
performed at ABC strongly indicates that unsuitable
methodologies have been employed, evinced as flaws in
the experimental setup, misinterpretation of the data and
miscalculation of endpoints. Furthermore, the regulatory
importance of these documents has been exaggerated and
scientific conclusions have been changed in subsequent
revisions. Also, the documentation indicates that US EPA
staff assisted in such manipulation of conclusions.
Numerous studies show that the true acute toxicity of
glyphosate and glyphosate herbicides for D. magna,
measured as 48 hours EC50 or LC50 values, is somewhere
in the range 2–149 mg/L depending on herbicide type and
test conditions [10, 12, 27, 28]. Although this shows
glyphosate to be much more toxic than the 780–930 mg/L
values reported by ABC, this chemical does actually still
not qualify for a very high degree of toxicity for aquatic
invertebrates, and we could use the term “moderately
toxic” (in the US EPA 1985 classification) and simply
“toxic” (in the European Council 1993 classification).
New ways of assessing the toxicity of pesticides are
emerging. In 2001 an international workshop on
probabilistic methods for risk assessment of pesticides
was held in the Netherlands. The 103 participants
included international experts in toxicology and probabi-
listic methods, potential users from government and
industry in EU member states and the European Free
Trade Association (EFTA) countries, and representatives
of the European Commission, the Pesticides Action
Network and the American Bird Conservancy. The
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JBPC Vol. 15 (2015)
objective of the workshop was to try and work up new
ways of thinking, moving from causality to holistic
methods: “Broadly speaking, the term probabilistic refers
to risk assessments that attempt to quantify variability
and/or uncertainty in factors that influence risk, and
express risk in terms of the probability and magnitude of
adverse effects. One specific area where probabilistic
methods might potentially be used is in assessing the
impact of plant protection products (pesticides) on the
environment. Directive 91/414/EEC requires EU member
states to analyze these risks before authorizing pesticides
for sale. The methods currently used for these asses-
sments are predominantly deterministic rather than
probabilistic; they use fixed values for exposure, toxicity
and risk, and attempt to allow for variability and
uncertainty by using worst-case assumptions and safety
factors. A probabilistic approach would allow for
variation and uncertainty by using distributions, instead of
fixed values, for exposure, toxicity and risk” [29] .
The workshop had a special focus on pesticide
toxicity in aquatic organisms and the working group
produced a comprehensive list of possible advantages
such methods might bring. The European Commission
guidance document on aquatic ecotoxicology is open to a
new approach to the subject. The document lines up
methods for testing in species of Daphnia, and
recommends that “uncertainty factors of 100 and 10 are
applied to acute and chronic endpoints respectively to
account for potential inter-species differences in
invertebrate sensitivity and other sources of uncertainty”
[19, (ch. 2)]. The document also gives important guidelines
for pesticide use, when runoff to an aquatic environment
can be expected: “Where there is a possibility of aquatic
organisms being exposed, no authorisation should be
granted if the toxicity/exposure ratio for fish and Daphnia
is less than 100 for acute exposure and less than 10 for
long-term exposure” [19, (ch. 4)]. With this type of
precautionary approach and using the correct data for
glyphosate toxicity in Daphnia, some of the present use
of glyphosate herbicides may be questioned.
An important issue here relates to the dynamics of
scientific evidence from tests. In science, the framework
of peer-review is normally used to ensure that only
research results of sufficient quality get to be published.
Once a result is published, it is seen as part of the
universal body of scientific evidence. Other researchers
will relate to it, refer to it and compare it to their own
findings and the findings of others. Returning to the
earlier discussion of the epistemology of facts, “To say
that something is a scientific fact is to bring in
epistemology and show awareness of the epistemic
brittleness of common sense. Advertisers often do it.
Many products are sold (sometimes correctly and
sometimes wrongly) in the name of science. As
consumers, we are often told that products have been
scientifically tested, and that the promised effects have
been scientifically proven to be there” [30]. This leads
directly into another interesting situation to consider about
Roundup. In 1996 the Attorney General of the State of
New York led a legal case against the agrochemical
company Monsanto. The case was spectacular and has
been described as legal action to stop false advertising of
Roundup herbicide, but it must also be seen as a legal
case on the interpretation of scientific data. The case
was prepared by Michael H. Surgan, who at the time
was the chief scientist in the New York State Attorney
General’s Environmental Protection Bureau. A brief
search brings up several peer-reviewed papers by this
chief scientist, hence arguably the Attorney General had
the necessary professional competence in his team at
hand, prepared to venture into scientific argumentation.
The result of the case was a long list of general
restrictions on Roundup advertising practice and also
specific rulings in scientific questions. One such restriction
specified that future toxicity characterization of the
Roundup herbicide was not to be taken out of context in
future presentation or public debate by the manufacturer;
thus, claims of the herbicide being “practically nontoxic”
or “slightly toxic” were to be substantiated by additional
information on the test method, the toxic effect evaluated
(endpoints), the exposure routes tested and the tested
species. In addition, the Attorney General stated that “to
the extent that any representations are based on data for
individual components (e.g., the active ingredient), rather
than for mixtures (formulated product) as applied, such
representations must be clear as to whether the claim is
being made for the active ingredient or for the product”
[31]. Thus, the Attorney General entered the scientific
debate on whether pesticides should be assessed on the
basis of their active ingredients alone, or whether the so
called “inert ingredients” and various chemical agents
present in commercial formulations of pesticides should
be assessed as having an equal or potentially even higher
impact on health and the environment than that of the
active ingredient alone.
The most important and damaging effect of the
misrepresentation of glyphosate toxicity in Daphnia
caused by the data presented by McAllister and Forbis
has been the subsequent incorporation of these data into
the framework of regulation: Not only as universal
Glyphosate nontoxicity: the genesis of a scientific fact M. Cuhra 95
JBPC Vol. 15 (2015)
reference for the alleged low toxicity of glyphosate
herbicides in general but, more importantly, by seeping
into, and being uncritically incorporated into, the body of
scientific evidence on glyphosate and Roundup toxicity.
We see that by presenting the data from the ABC testing,
authors from the independent scientific community have
conferred onto these misleading data the legitimacy of
real facts, incorporating them into comprehensive
reviews and publishing these reviews in esteemed peer-
reviewed scientific journals. Following this, regulators
such as the US EPA and EFSA, as well as consultants
working in policy document preparation, have absorbed
and presented these misleading data as if they were true.
Through a process of innumerable reduplication and
cross-referencing, the data from a small and highly
questionable experiment in a private laboratory working
for Monsanto in 1978 have become scientific fact in the
present time. This is even more paradoxical when we see
that still more tests have been done on the toxicity of
glyphosate and glyphosate herbicides in recent years. We
have collected numerous peer-reviewed investigations
into this specific scientific question, by researchers
working in various countries [12]. The great majority of
this work indicates the same as our own testing of
glyphosate and Roundup in Daphnia, namely that the
original work by McAllister and Forbis is not
representative. Then, why is the work of McAllister
and Forbis still being presented as the truth in
revision after revision of policy documents on these
chemicals? Through our investigation into the subject we
have become convinced that it is due to a series of
unfortunate circumstances: firstly by the fact that these
data penetrated into peer-reviewed publications such as
widely used reference works; secondly, because regulators
do not have a mechanism of revising such fundamental
information other than the process of updating reviews,
guidelines and policy documents and, although that process
is based on peer review and public hearings, these
matters are often so immensely complex that only a few
of the scientists involved (even those sitting on the expert
panels) have the capacity to submerge themselves into the
details; thirdly: companies producing glyphosate herbicides
use “interpretations” of the 780 mg/L and 930 mg/L EC50
values, often presenting some obscurely derived fraction
of these values based on the glyphosate content in their
specific product; this unfortunately gives the impression
that independent tests have been made and thus
contributes further “new evidence”. One paradoxical
aspect of this whole matter, is the fact that the scientific
misconduct perpetrated by researchers at ABC, disclosed
and described here, seems to have been unnecessary.
Even though our new assessments and reviews [12]
have found that the lethal toxicity level for glyphosate is
of the order of 5 mg/L in Daphnia (defined as EC50(48)
values), then that still only indicates moderate toxicity. In
any case, none of the credible evidence I have reviewed
in my 5-year study of this subject has shown that
glyphosate should be termed highly toxic to the Daphnia
test species. So, if the true results show moderate toxicity,
then why did the researchers at ABC cheat and falsify
the data? Or could it be that they just performed the
testing in the “standard way” used at the time? Well, for
one thing, nobody at the time could have known that the
substance they were testing was to become the world’s
most important and most widely used agrochemical and,
thus, a subject for future scrutiny and repeated testing.
This work has been funded by Forskningsrådet the
Norwegian Research Council, project no. 184107 Miljø-2015.
The author wishes to express appreciation for construc-
tive scientific and stylistic contributions from anonymous
reviewers and the editorial board, respectively.
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    • Thus, in society there is an antagonistic tension between commercial vs. public interests concerning the regulation of global and local application of e.g., glyphosate herbicides. This leads to a dynamic interplay driven by two main vectors, of which one represents commercial forces (in this case primarily manufacturing chemical industry and farmers), and the other represents societal interest (health, environmental protection, qualitative requirements) (Cuhra, 2015c). The arguments supporting and enhancing the opposing vectors, are furnished by scientists and other professionals working within private sector research firms, in publicly funded university laboratories, in regulatory authorities, as consultants or in non-governmental organizations representing defined interests.
    File · Data · Apr 2016 · Frontiers in Bioscience
    • Thus, in society there is an antagonistic tension between commercial vs. public interests concerning the regulation of global and local application of e.g., glyphosate herbicides. This leads to a dynamic interplay driven by two main vectors, of which one represents commercial forces (in this case primarily manufacturing chemical industry and farmers), and the other represents societal interest (health, environmental protection, qualitative requirements) (Cuhra, 2015c). The arguments supporting and enhancing the opposing vectors, are furnished by scientists and other professionals working within private sector research firms, in publicly funded university laboratories, in regulatory authorities, as consultants or in non-governmental organizations representing defined interests.
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Although previously accepted as the less toxic alternative, with low impact on animals, farmers as well as consumers who are exposed to residues in food, glyphosate chemicals are now increasingly controversial as new evidence from research is emerging. We argue that specific aspects of the history, chemistry and safety of glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides should be thoroughly considered in present and future re-evaluations of these dominant agrochemicals: · Glyphosate is not a single chemical, it is a family of compounds with different chemical, physical and toxicological properties. · Glyphosate is increasingly recognized as having more profound toxicological effects than assumed from previous assessments. · Global use of glyphosate is continuously increasing and residues are detected in food, feed and drinking water. Thus, consumers are increasingly exposed to higher levels of glyphosate residues, and from an increasing number of sources. · Glyphosate regulation is predominantly still based on primary safety-assessment testing in various indicator organisms. However, archive studies indicate fraud and misbehavior committed by the commercial laboratories providing such research. We see emerging evidences from studies in test-animals, ecosystems indicators and studies in human health, which justify stricter regulatory measures. This implies revising glyphosate residue definitions and lowering Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) permissible in biological material intended for food and feed, as well as strengthening environmental criteria such as accepted residue concentrations in surface waters. It seems that although recent research indicates that glyphosates are less harmless than previously assumed and have complex toxicological potential, still regulatory authorities accept industry demands for approving higher levels of these residues in food and feed.
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