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Roundup concerns played down
Newsroom’s ROD ORAM looks into the controversy around the Environmental Protection Agency’s ruling that
the ingredient used in Roundup was unlikely to be carcinogenic. He finds the Government’s chief scientist and the
Ministry for the Environment have concerns about the EPA’s performance.
he Ministry for the
Environment, which is
responsible for monitoring
the Environmental Protection
Authority, is querying the
EPA over its controversial
handling of glyphosate, the widely-used
weedkiller sold in New Zealand under the
name Roundup and other brands.
Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s
chief science adviser, confirmed the
Government is talking with the EPA about
those concerns. This inter vention is led by
Dr Alison Collins, MfE’s newly appointed
departmental science adviser.
“ We don’t fully understand what they (the
EPA) do. That needs to be clarified so the
public has confidence,” Sir Peter said. The
inter vention was prompted by “concerns
that various interest groups have had about
Glyphosate was declared “probably
carcinogenic to humans” by the WHO in
2015. Its study, and subsequent ones, have
prompted a number of countries to tighten
or end some uses of glyphosate.
France, for example, has banned local
authorities from using it in public areas; use
by individuals and households will be banned
from January 2019; and the government
is drawing up plans for phasing it out of
agriculture “in light of current research and
available alternatives for farmers”.
In New Zealand, however, the EPA
declared last August that “glyphosate is
unlikely to be genotoxic (damaging to gene
information in cells) or carcinogenic to
The heart of the glyphosate controversy
here is whether the EPA has fulfilled
its statutory responsibilities to identify
hazardous substance and to manage the risks
of them; and concerns about its “net benefit”
analysis, which is its ill-defined approach to
Public confidence in the EPA’s science and
processes is paramount given its powerful
role as the regulator across vast areas of our
environment. The Key government created
the EPA in July 2011 to streamline and
update environmental regulation:
It runs boards of inquiry on infrastructure
projects, such as major highways, deemed
to have national significance. This removes
the projects from the RMA processes run by
It regulates new organisms (plants,
animals and GM organisms) and hazardous
substances and chemicals.
It administers the Emissions Trading
Scheme and operates New Zealand’s
Emissions Trading Register.
It manages the environmental impact of
specified activities in our marine Exclusive
Economic Zone, including prospecting for
petroleum and minerals, seismic sur veying
and scientific research. O ur 4.3 million
square kilometres EEZ is the fourth largest
in the world, and 20 times our land area.
In many of these activities it has
considerable powers, with limited avenues
for applicants and the public to challenge its
This is particularly the case with the EEZ.
In August, for example, it gave the first
approval for seabed mining in New Zealand.
The EPA’s four-member committee was split
two in favour and two who held “a strong
dissenting view,” Allan Freeth, the EPA’s
chief executive, said in announcing the
decision. The committee chairman cast his
deciding vote for mining.
Dr Freeth, who has a PhD in population
genetics, has led the EPA since September
2015. His previous roles included chief
executive of Telstra-Clear and Wrightson.
The EPA’s chairwoman is Kerry Prendergast,
a former mayor of Wellington; and its
chief scientist is Jacqueline Rowarth, an
agricultural scientist and academic.
The glyphosate story goes back a long way.
A Swiss scientist first synthesised it in 1950.
In 1970, Monsanto, the US agri-chemical
company, began developing and patenting
it as a weedkiller. It launched its first
commercial product, under the Roundup
brand, in 1974. Glyphosate was first
authorised for use in New Zealand in 1976.
While Monsanto’s last patents on
glyphosate as a weedkiller expired in 2000,
its other products, such as GM-modified
corn, alfalfa and other seeds which are
resistant to Roundup, still account for half
The market for glyphosate is now ser ved
by producers offering a wider diversity of
formulations. Since 2000, worldwide use of
it as a weedkiller has quadrupled to more
than 850,000 tonnes a year.
The latest round of controversy over
glyphosate was triggered in 2015 by a
report from the International Agency for
Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the
World Health Organisation. It had set up a
working group of 17 scientists with relevant
expertise from 11 countries including New
Zealand to assess the carcinogenicity of
five organophosphate biocides including
The group reviewed the scientific literature
and concluded that taking the human,
animal, and mechanistic data together,
glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to
Since 1971, IARC has evaluated some
1000 agents and classified only 120 of them
as group 1 (carcinogenic to humans) and
81 as group 2A (probably carcinogenic). Its
other groups are: 2b (possibly carcinogenic);
3 (not classifiable); and 4 (probably not
The report led to an extensive reappraisal
of glyphosate in many jurisdictions, replete
with charges, counter-charges and fierce
debates by scientists, regulators, companies
and consumers, with Monsanto playing an
active role as a provider of evidence.
In recent years, a number of jurisdictions
have tightened up on glyphosate, or banned
some uses of it. These include California, the
Netherlands (which has banned its use in
municipal areas spaces such as roadsides and
parks), Sweden, Denmark, Brazil and India.
In the EU, its relicensing is being bitterly
Dr Rowarth, the EPA’s chief scientist,
says the New Zealand agency is constantly
scanning the world for new science to
evaluate. To that end, it hired Dr Wayne
Temple, a former director of the National
Poisons Centre, to review the literature on
The EPA released his 19-page report in
August last year. His verdict: “ The overall
conclusion is that — based on a weight of
evidence approach, taking into account the
quality and reliability of the available data
— glyphosate is unlikely to be genotoxic or
carcinogenic to humans and does not require
classification under HSNO (Hazardous
Substances and New Organisms Act) as a
carcinogen or mutagen.”
For a comprehensive rebuttal by public
health scientists, and some scientists who
work with IARC, this blog is useful. It is on
Sciblogs, which is hosted and moderated by
the Science Media Centre, which in turn
is hosted by and receives its government
funding through the Royal Society.
The Greens also published this 184-page
report on the issue in July.
In defending the EPA’s report publicly, Dr
Rowarth has repeatedly said that glyphosate
could be as harmful as IARC has identified,
but only under extreme circumstances. It is
safe if “used as directed”.
These are the EPA’s directions to members
of the public who use Roundup and other
Before you spray :
Read all instructions on the label and
Make sure you are using the right
product for the job you are doing.
Confirm your spray area is not close to
water, such as streams, rivers, lakes or ponds.
Check the weather forecast. Make sure
no rain is predicted for at least 24 hours.
Avoid spraying when it is windy.
Clear children and pets from the area,
and keep them well away.
Follow the label advice on the need for
Wash your hands, face and clothing.
Keep children and pets away until the
spray has dried, or for the amount of time
indicated on the label.
Read the instructions on the label to help
you safely dispose of any unused product.
Dr Rowarth says the EPA is a world leader
for its work on “net benefit” analysis on such
“O ur scientists are being invited abroad” to
give presentations on the methodology, she
said in an inter view with this columnist.
Broadly speaking this means weighing up
the financial, health and environmental costs
of a substance against its economic benefits.
For example, Dr Rowarth says, Roundup,
and other forms are glyphosate, are highly
beneficial to farmers because they reduce
weeds and significantly increase crop yields.
“It ’s a very difficult calculation,” she says.
However much economics goes into the
analysis, “ultimately there is a final point
that becomes subjective” about wider societal
Exactly how does that work? I asked her.
“ We’re trying to formalise that because more
people are challenging decisions.”
Does the EPA have a guide to this
methodology? “I’ve been exploring this in
press articles . . . and a document is being
prepared internally on this.”
The Listener carried her most recent piece
last week. In the first two and a half pages
of the four-page spread she explores issues
such as “chemophobia”. This irrational fear
of chemicals is on the rise, and only good
science can counter it, she writes.
She also quotes Johan Norberg on the
many benefits modern society has gained
from chemicals. Norberg is a fellow in the
Cato Institute, the leading US neoliberal
think-tank. He is also a member of the
Mont Pelerin Society, past members of
which have included Friedman, Hayek,
Popper and von Mises and other fathers of
Then she turns to glyphosate. She recaps
some of the controversy over it, explains how
the EPA applies a net benefit analysis to the
subject, and quotes Martin Kayser, a medical
doctor and senior vice-president of product
safety at BASF, the German chemical
company, on his call for a different type of
Dr Rowarth writes: “He has suggested
replacing the so-called precautionary
principle with an innovation principle and
urged a rethink to enable the chemical
industry to be a ‘solutions provider
with a prerequisite of sound chemical
When did New Zealand last amend its
regulations on glyphosate? I asked her.
“I don’t know ’” she replied.
Beyond the Temple report, what other
recent risk assessment has the EPA done on
“I ’ll check the timelines.”
To make its risk assessment, what data
does the EPA have on the volume, use
and dosage of glyphosate, and the growth
of those in New Zealand? And do those
match overseas trends of rapid growth in
use, formulations and manufacturers which
potentially have increased the risks arising
from its use?
“ We don’t have those data.”
She thought MfE had the data, but it
wasn’t available to the EPA for reasons of
Dr Rowarth said she was unaware of Dr
Collins’s inquiries of the EPA about its
handling of the glyphosate issues.
*In an earlier version of this column
I wrote that MfE was reviewing the
EPA’s regulatory work on glyphosate.
Before writing that, I had used the word
reviewing in my e-mail to Sir Peter, and in
a subsequent inter view with him. He raised
no objection to the word at the time.
However, after the column was first
published, MfE issued this statement:
“The Ministry for the Environment
wishes to correct a statement made on the
Newsroom website today.
“The Newsroom item stated that the
ministry is reviewing the Environmental
Protection Authority (EPA). That claim
was reportedly based on comments from Sir
Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s chief
“ Both the Ministry for the Environment
and the Prime Minister’s chief science
adviser have confirmed that no such review
of the EPA is under way.
“The Ministry for the Environment
is responsible for monitoring the EPA’s
performance on behalf of the Minister for
the Environment, but we have no review
of the EPA under way, or any plans to
do so. Nor do we play a role in reviewing
the EPA’s assessments or approvals of
hazardous substances. To do so would
encroach on their independence as New
Zealand’s regulatory authority on hazardous
substances and new organisms,” ministry
chief executive Vicky Robertson said.
“ My comments about the Ministry for
the Environment being in contact with the
EPA were not meant to imply that a formal
review was under way,” Sir Peter Gluckman
PICTURE: Mike Mozart
A working group of 17 scientists found that glyphosate — the main ingredient in weedkiller Roundup — was “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
Govt investigating fuel tax hike
Potential tax increases were one of the main weapons used by National in its election battle. But documents suggest the
Government has been considering its own bump in revenue-gathering to pay for transport spending.
SHANE COWLISHAW of Newsroom reports.
The Government has been
investigating fuel tax increases to
plug holes in its transport budget,
despite ruling them out during the
National announced plans in August to
build 10 new roads of national significance
at a cost of $10.5 billion. It is also facing
a significant cost in meeting its share
of the Auckland Transport Alignment
Project (ATAP), an agreement between
the Government and Auckland Council to
develop the city’s transport system during
the next 30 years.
Before the election Labour announced
it would, if elected, introduce a 10c
regional fuel tax in Auckland to help
meet transport costs, and suggested the
Government was itself already modelling a
nationwide fuel tax increase to pay for its
new motor ways.
National denied this, saying there were no
plans for a fuel tax and pointing the finger
at Labour as the party planning to raise
But, according to documents released to
the Greens under the Official Information
Act, the Government appears to have at
least been considering the possibility.
The documents reveal Transport Minister
Simon Bridges requested information
from the Ministry of Transport on options
for funding the ATAP shortfall and State
With the revised funding gap for
ATAP now estimated at $5.9b following
new population growth projections, the
Government ’s share will be between $1b
In a May memo, the Ministry advised of
several options available to plug the ATAP
gap, including raising fuel taxes by 1% to
2%, delaying major projects or using more
A later briefing in July followed a request
from Mr Bridges for advice on the funding
implications of delivering “nationally
significant urban corridors in Auckland over
the next decade”.
One of the new roads of national
significance is the $1b Mill Road corridor in
A redacted graph is included in this
briefing that appears to outline petrol excise
duty alongside the Consumer Price Index.
In a separate document of internal
ministry analysis, however, a similar graph is
unredacted and models a 5c fuel tax increase
in 2018, followed by increases of between
10c to 20c over the next decade.
Throughout the documents mention is
made about the release of the Government ’s
policy statement on land transport funding
(GPS 2018), essentially the transport budget
for the year.
In an August briefing the ministry noted
the GPS was ready for release and included
measures to plug most of the ATAP gap,
with a target release date set for the end of
the month before Parliament rose before the
The document has yet to be released.
Newsroom wanted to talk to Mr Bridges
about the possibility of fuel tax increases and
why the GPS had not been released to the
public but his office declined, saying it was
inappropriate considering the Government
was in caretaker mode.
The ministry’s senior communications
adviser, Fran Lovell, suggested speaking to
Mr Bridges’s office regarding options to
address the funding shortfall.
Regarding the publication of the GPS,
Lovell said it would be published before it
came into effect on June 30 and previous
versions had been released between two and
12 months prior.
Greens transport spokeswoman Julie
Anne Genter, said funding to build
the Government ’s 10 new roads of
significance would have to come from
“National was being pretty disingenuous
in attacking Labour about taxes when they
haven’t explained how their own project will
be paid for.”
All of the Greens’ planned expenditure
on public transport would be paid for by
scrapping some of the projects, but it was
possible small incremental increases in fuel
taxes would be needed to pay for existing
Government projects such as Transmission
Gully, she said.
Labour Party transport spokesman,
Michael Wood, said a reliable source had
told him the ministry had been modelling
fuel tax increases.
Regardless, the Government had denied
that the option was being considered so to
have that confirmed was “riddled with irony
and hypocrisy ”.
“ We raised this in the lead-up to the
election and Steven Joyce basically denied
Mr Wood said Labour’s policy of a
regional fuel tax and scrapping of the
east-west link project would be sufficient to
address the city’s shortfall and was a fairer
“ We need this stuff for Auckland and
Aucklanders are ready to pay for that
and we don’t think it ’s particularly fair
or reasonable to charge someone in
Invercargill to build Auckland’s transport
Regarding the roads of national
significance, Mr Wood said there would be
an “evidence-based review ” to see which
were viable financially.
PICTURE: Getty Images
Transport Minister Simon Bridges requested information on whether fuel tax increases are needed to pay for infrastructure spending.
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