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Glyphosate and the Uneasy Relationship between Scientific Expertise and the Law

22 September 2017

Last week, I had my first paper published in an academic journal:
Smyth, Caer ‘What counts as expertise? The case of glyphosate and Jasanoff’s ‘three-body problem.’ Environmental Law Review.

This was exciting for me, a significant moment in what I hope will be a long career. The process, from first draft to publication, was illuminating. Mostly, it was long!

The idea for the paper came from an assignment in my Masters year, over a year and a half ago. The paper took about 11 months from start until finish, and was read by at least 9 people before publication. This extensive process demonstrates in some ways the stages through which academic work gains validity, and so reflects some of the issues at the heart of the article.

The paper explores the manner in which glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, Monsanto’s leading herbicide, was assessed by various advisory bodies, and what its treatment reveals about the complex interactions between scientific expertise and the law, and the risks of regulation in areas of scientific uncertainty. In March 2015, the cancer research agency of the World Health Organisation, IARC, stated that glyphosate was ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. In November of that year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) re-assessed glyphosate, as its licence for market in the European Union was due for renewal; they found it to be safe for human use.

Both of these decisions were controversial, and faced sharp criticism. The criticism attempted to undermine the credibility of the scientific expertise, and centred on questions of legitimacy, both political and scientific. The experts that informed the IARC and EFSA decisions were accused of ‘fraudulent or knowingly inaccurate statements’, of ‘unethical behaviour’, of practising ‘flawed science’, of providing ‘ammunition for extremists’, and of ‘picking and choosing from scientific evidence’.

Employing ‘flawed science’ was portrayed as a significant risk to public institutions and to the public in general; scientific experts were accused of engaging in a ‘transparent attempt to discredit regulatory agencies’, and the corporations concerned were accused of ‘jeopardis[ing] public confidence in scientific methods and institutions’. In defending themselves, the scientific experts sought to firmly re-establish the boundaries between their objective, scientific work and the muddy work of politics, protesting that, ‘none of us had a political agenda’; ‘We were independent and just looked at the science’.

The study of glyphosate provides us with an opportunity to explore how scientific expertise interacts with the law, and the challenges this entails. This is particularly useful as the concerns highlighted in the paper are likely to be echoed in other environmental policy issues, where scientific knowledge is uncertain or where public concern is considerable. These concerns include but are not limited to the risk of regulatory bodies falling prey to the capture paradigm, and the tendency for experts, in seeking to reinforce the legitimacy of their work, to maintain an epistemic hierarchy.

While realising my first publication may have been a long process, it looks like regulating glyphosate will take longer and be more controversial! The European Commission, following EFSA’s decision, recommended that glyphosate be re-licensed. However, since March 2016, the Commission’s recommendation has failed three times to garner the necessary support at the European Parliament. The Commission will ask the Parliament again in October, as the movement against glyphosate’s re-licensing grows in strength. We will see what happens.