Health |Analysis

Glyphosate and the risks of cancer

  1. Glyphosate is the key ingredient in the world’s bestselling weedkiller

Earlier this week, the EU Commission’s Appeal Committee agreed to renew the license for the use of glyphosate in Europe. The decision means glyphosate can continue to be used as a weedkiller for another five years. The ruling ended months of deadlock over a controversial substance at the center of health and environmental concerns.

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s cancer agency, the IARC, said glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Several international agencies, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), subsequently came to opposite conclusions. Agriculture company Monsanto, which produces glyphosate, has always insisted the substance is safe.

The commission says the new five-year license will be ready before the current one expires next month. The UK, Poland and Germany were among the states that voted in favor of renewing the license. France and Belgium were among the states that voted against. Portugal abstained.

There are many factors for and against the use of glyphosate as a weedkiller. It would seem as though European decision makers have made a ruling that defies advice from the WHO. So why would the EU approve a Group 2A carcinogen for use in Europe?

Group 2A carcinogens are categorized as “probable carcinogens,” an IARC grouping applied when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans. A more dangerous category are the Group 1 carcinogens which are carcinogenic to humans.

Most of us are regularly exposed to considerable quantities of Group 1 substances. Ethanol is a Group 1 carcinogen found in alcoholic beverages. In heavily polluted cities such as Delhi, residents expose themselves to large quantities of another Group 1 carcinogen, “particulate matter in outdoor air pollution.” There is also growing evidence that perfume from scented candles reacts with air to produce another Group 1 carcinogen, formaldehyde.

Other common Group 1 carcinogens include particles from tobacco (both smoked and smokeless), dust from sandblasting and UV tanning devices.

We also regularly expose ourselves to a number of Group 2A carcinogens, including acrylamide, which is found in bread and other baked/fried products. Many of us also eat red meat or drink beverages that are too hot, some of us also have wood-burning stoves; which are all Group 2A activities.

So if the sole argument for banning glyphosate is that it features on the IARC’s Group 2A list, we should be consistent and stop eating bread (acrylamide in Group 2A) and drinking any alcohol in the Group 1 list.

This analysis is not a comment on how the IARC’s list was compiled. A good example of the debate on the subject can be found in this helpful Wikipedia article on the IARC. There is no doubt, for example, that ethanol contributes to some forms of cancer. But if used in moderation, ethanol is not considered a problem. The same applies to the burning of candles.

On the issue of glyphosate, the fact that the IARC has labeled it a Group 2A carcinogen is not something that should be ignored. But nor should it end all discussion there. The European group presumably concluded that the carcinogenicity of glyphosate is sufficiently low, the required precautions in use are sufficiently manageable and the quantities in our food chain are also so low, that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Next time you feel a substance should be banned, please spend a little time going through the IARC’s lists. The work is part of a general consensus over which chemicals are dangerous and why some are highly restricted.

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Talk (11)


Jesús Pestana Puerta

"I agree, I also noticed this when rea..."

Tobias Boyd

"You're very welcome!"

Steven Abbott

"Tobias Boyd pointed out my error in m..."

Tobias Boyd

"I see a small inconsistency, directly..."


United Kingdom
I'm a PhD chemist, a Visiting Professor at the School of Mechanical Engineering at U. Leeds (so I have access to the academic literature) and an independent scientist who writes books (the most recent ones are free-to-download eBooks) on technical topics such as nanocoatings, adhesion, surfactants, solubility and printing. I try to give away as much of my knowledge as possible via technical apps on my website - all free, free of adverts etc. I consult on technical problems all around the world.

History for Story "Glyphosate and the risks of cancer"

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  1. Time Contributor Edit
  2. SA Steven Abbott (Contributions | Talk) Fix the mixup about the acrylamide group
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  12. SA Steven Abbott (Contributions | Talk) First draft proposal - feel free to reject

Talk for Story "Glyphosate and the risks of cancer"

Talk about this Story

  1. Tobias Boyd pointed out my error in making acrylamide Group 1 when I conflated bread and alcohol. Thanks, Tobias! I’ve fixed the issue.

  2. I see a small inconsistency, directly after noting that acrylamide in bread is in Group 2A, the next paragraph seems to move it to Group 1:

    “So if the sole argument for banning glyphosate is that it features on the IARC’s Group 2A list, we should be consistent and stop eating bread and drinking any alcohol which are on the Group 1 list.”

    1. I agree, I also noticed this when reading the article.

  3. Thanks for the story Steven. I would only say, irrespective of the position taken in a very complex argument, the story here is strong enough (in respect to the aspect of carcinogens) without the last paragraph which is quite obviously a very personal plea (to whom?).

    It should also be said that the affirmative vote from Germany has led to further disharmony in the caretaker Government, and yet another hurdle in the pursuit of a new coalition. The vote initiated by the minister for agriculture, etc., Christian Schmidt from the Union, was done so without consultation with the minister for environment,etc., Barbara Hendricks from the Social Democrats. Hendricks was opposed to the extension, and Schmidt therefore acted against the set procedures of the grand coalition; whereby in a cross-ministerium EU matter such as this, when their is an irreconcilable disagreement, that Germany would abstain.

    It should be said that a German abstention would not have made any difference – simply a matter of principal, and given the fragile state of governance in Germay at the moment, good-will.

    1. Hi Anne, a German abstention would have made the difference. The qualified majority required a positive vote from that 55 percent of the EU countries (i. e. 16 member states) representing at least 65 percent of the EU population. The 18 states that voted in favour reached 65.7 percent of the population. Without the positive vote from Germany, 65 percent would not have been reached. “The key swing vote came from Germany”:

      1. Thanks for the clarification and link, Ingrid. Just did a crash course in what a qualified majority is at
        The Reuters article is also interesting in pointing to another problematic for Germany; that of discord with the French position.

    2. Good point about the last paragraph – I’ve got a lot to learn about being a Contributor to WT! If you go to History you will find that it has been edited down from an even larger “plea”. Your question “to whom?” takes us to what WT is for. They (rightly) don’t want opinion pieces. But it is hard to avoid the fact that many discussions on carcinogens are not rational. For those who wanted to ban glyphosate purely because someone has labelled it Group 2A (and of course there are plenty who have other reasons, not discussed in the article), it would be useful to get into the habit of thinking how many other things they would ban if that were the only criterion. It would make the “toxicity” part of the debate more useful.

      I am so happy that I have no skills or desire to comment on politics – I would never want to deal with issues such as which German party is for or against a weed killer!

      1. Well you’re learning fast – I’ve go about as far as this one comment and learning to look to “History” in the future! Would say I think in the end a lot of things come down to “politics”, and I bet you’re probably more political than you think. In terms of Germany – I live here so I have got to keep up a bit with what’s going on, and the glyphosate story actually has been a major topic in the last days, though the fact that Bayer (a German multi) is in the process of a takeover of Monsanto has not been spotlighted as much as it might in my opinion. Back to the weed killing!

  4. Hi Steven, really good article. I’ve been tracking this issue but more from a public policy perspective for quite some time. Have you read Le Monde’s investigation into Monsanto and glyphosate? If so, what do you think of it?

    1. I was very deliberately commenting only on the carcinogen aspect because that can be cool, calm and objective. The debates around it as a fertilizer and the large actors in the issues are a very different thing and I have no expert knowledge to contribute

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