Study of the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate: ANSES announces the withdrawal of the consortium selected to conduct additional toxicological studies

Following the controversies over the carcinogenic classification of glyphosate, ANSES and its expert groups developed a strategy for the toxicological studies planned to supplement exploration of this substance's carcinogenic potential. Two research teams were selected to carry out these studies following the 2019 international call for applications: a scientific consortium coordinated by the Institut Pasteur of Lille, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) for a specific study.

Because the selection of certain teams had met with criticism, the Agency is today announcing the withdrawal of the consortium of seven laboratories selected in April, due to an absence of the conditions of serenity and trust needed for these studies to be taken into account during the European re-assessment of glyphosate in 2022. As a result, the Agency will now only be funding the novel study proposed by the IARC.*

ANSES deeply regrets this situation. It points out that although questions may have been raised about the presence of the same scientists at several stages of the process, it had verified that there was no conflict of interest involving the consortium coordinator or any of the managers of the laboratories involved, with regard to the agrochemical industry.

Glyphosate is an active substance found in many herbicidal products, whose use was re-approved for five years by the European Union in December 2017. To improve understanding of its possible mechanisms of carcinogenic action and assess their relevance for humans, ANSES had issued a call for applications to conduct several additional studies, as recommended in its Opinion on the "Study plan to examine the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate" of March 2019 (PDF). The objective was to gather the most comprehensive scientific data possible on the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate in view of the next European re-assessment of the active substance in 2022. The amount of 1.2 million euros was budgeted to fund these studies under the Ecophyto II+ plan.

The applications received were examined in terms of both their relevance in responding to the specifications and the originality of the solutions proposed. The guide for analysing relationships of interest applied by ANSES to its experts and staff was used to verify the absence of any links constituting conflicts of interest with respect to the work requested, particularly with regard to companies marketing plant protection products. Exceptionally, each scientific leader of the selected projects was asked to complete a declaration of interests.

Following the application analysis process, on 30 April, the Agency announced the selection of two projects (PDF) led by:

  • a consortium coordinated by the Institut Pasteur of Lille, made up of seven laboratories – the Institut Pasteur of Lille, CEA, University of Lille, Inserm's NuMeCan Institute, University of Toulouse, Regional Agency for Prevention, Environment and Energy, Italy (ARPAE) and LABERCA – whose programme covered the entire specifications, with guarantees in terms of integration of the various results and comparability with the data produced by industry for regulatory reasons;
  • the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which was proposing a novel study to explore the possible genotoxic effects following long-term exposure of cultured cells to glyphosate.

Although scientifically relevant, this selection was also a default choice for the Agency since, despite its efforts to promote the call for applications widely at an international level, it received only four responses, including from only two consortia – the candidate profile sought by the Agency. These two consortia were linked to members of the Agency's expert committee that had participated in developing the study strategy, which led to questions being raised in an article in Le Monde dated 16 June 2020.

In view of the importance of having additional studies for the ongoing European re-assessment process, ANSES had decided to follow up on the call for applications. However, as the questions raised risked creating a climate of suspicion around the study findings that may have undermined the serenity of the scientific debates, the team coordinating the winning consortium, followed by several of the laboratories involved, announced the withdrawal of their participation. This situation therefore led to the withdrawal of the consortium, whose integrated approach was a key element guaranteeing the quality of the study strategy.

The IARC-led project, on the other hand, will go ahead and be funded, with results expected in the second half of 2021.*

ANSES regrets the climate of tension and suspicion surrounding the issue of assessing the hazards and risks of glyphosate, which is detrimental to the serenity of the essential scientific debates. It commends the courage of the teams that agreed to apply for this study theme in spite of this tense atmosphere characterised by strong opinions.

ANSES remains fully committed to developing independent research in a broader framework at European level, as this is needed more than ever as input for chemical risk assessment. It calls on the scientific community to take action and respond to the calls for projects that are issued on this topic, now and in the future.

* In October 2020, CIRC informed ANSES of its decision to withdraw its study programme on glyphosate toxicity in order to focus on new research priorities.