WASHINGTON – Monsanto Co. called on the World Health Organization on Tuesday to withdraw a claim that the most widely used weed killer in the world could cause cancer, with the seed giant accusing the agency of unnecessarily scaring consumers and farmers who use their products.
The St. Louis company, which gets billions in revenue annually from the sale of its corn, soybeans and other seeds designed to withstand glyphosate spray, has asked for a meeting with World Health Organization officials to discuss the findings. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto's popular herbicide Roundup that is sprayed on genetically modified crops grown using its seeds — killing the weeds but allowing the plants to thrive.
The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said in a report Friday that glyphosate was "probably carcinogenic" to humans. The agency said the chemical, used in more than 750 products made by Monsanto and other companies, has been found in water, air and food during spraying. But WHO said use of the weed killer is often low in areas where most of the public would face the greatest risk of exposure.
The finding, Monsanto said, contradicts decades of scientific and regulatory reviews — including by the Environmental Protection Agency — that have deemed glyphosate safe and not a risk to human health. Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, blasted the IARC for "cherry-picking" data and accused the agency of "an agenda-driven bias."
"This contradiction has the potential to unnecessarily confuse and alarm parents and consumers, farmers and the public at large," Brett Begemann, president and chief operating officer with Monsanto, told reporters.
He said Monsanto takes seriously the health and safety of the farmers who use its product. Begemann was optimistic that agricultural producers would continue to use its seed and chemical platform to boost the productivity of their crops.
"We expect farmers will continue to use this and do not anticipate that there will be an impact on our sales," Begemann said.
An official with IARC did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but in prior media reports it has stood by its findings.
Chris Novak, chief executive officer of the National Corn Growers Association, said on the Monsanto conference call that critics are unfairly attacking glyphosate at a time when farmers need as many tools as possible to produce more crops sustainably. Agricultural producers have faith in regulators who have ensured the product is safe, he said.
"We use these tools on our land, working alongside our family members, so the safety of these products is critical to us," Novak said.
In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees glyphosate, said it "does not pose a cancer risk to humans." The agency also has previously determined the chemical met the statutory safety standards and could "continue to be used without unreasonable risks to people or the environment." A routine safety review of glyphosate currently being conducted by the EPA is expected to be completed later this year.
Phil Miller, Monsanto vice president of global affairs, said the firm did not expect the findings to impact the "regulatory status" of its product because IARC was not a regulatory body.
Monsanto is a close competitor of DuPont Pioneer, Iowa's fast-growing seed business based in Johnston.
Environmental and consumer groups have expressed concerns about the prevalence of glyphosate, which has surged during the past two decades as more U.S. corn and soybean crops were planted with weed killer-tolerant seeds.
Glyphosate was influential in leading to the passage of a mandatory labeling measure in Vermont last year for foods containing genetically modified crops, the first in the country.
In a conference call with reporters, several groups said Tuesday they were hopeful the IARC study would force the EPA to take a closer look at the safety of glyphosate and spur the White House to craft a nationwide labeling initiative to allow people to know about the presence of genetically modified ingredients in their food.
"Even if it's in debate and even if it's in dispute, at least give consumers the right to know," said Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm and chairman of the Just Label It campaign. "This is about democratizing the market place, allowing consumers to know what is going on so they can make intelligent choices."