Field of Science

Syngenta, atrazine and keeping the science separate from the policy

The New Yorker has an excellent piece of reporting on the efforts of Tyrone Hayes, a UC Berkeley biology professor and his efforts to investigate potentially very important and deleterious effects of the herbicide atrazine on sexual dimorphism in frogs. In some of his experiments male frogs seemed to develop female genitalia. The major part of the piece is about how Syngenta - the maker of the multibillion dollar herbicide - tried to discredit Hayes. Ample supporting evidence is provided in internal memos and emails released as part of a law suit.

Many aspects of the story are worth thinking about but one of the most important ones is how such stories always risk the danger of conflating unethical behavior by companies with the underlying science. Syngenta shenanigans reported in the article are clearly unacceptable and stifling, but the message about atrazine is far more ambiguous. The piece points out several questions that the EPA raised about Hayes's studies (as well as Syngenta's), including proper statistical analysis and the extrapolation of amphibian studies to humans.

The important point is that these are valid and critical questions, even if Syngenta was using them to discredit Hayes (at one point one scientist dismisses statistical concerns as "routine", as if routine meant trivial). The motives of those wanting to use science to their own ends does not automatically affect the validity or lack therefore of the science itself. This is something that few environmentalists, in my experience, appreciate. Fortunately some do; for instance I have had commenters on my posts on GMOs explicitly saying that while they do support the science showing the safety of GMOs, they are much more concerned about the bullying and muzzling tactics used by companies like Monsanto. Sadly such commenters are precious and few.

The Syngenta/atrazine story falls in the same category. The company clearly used muzzling and shady tactics on Hayes but the verdict of atrazine's effects on human populations is clearly out there. In 2010 the EPA ruled out banning the herbicide for want of better evidence, and its decision only shows you how complicated it is to link the effect of any chemical to environmental or human damage. Personally - and I can't say I have reviewed the evidence in detail - I think Hayes is on to something but it's not certain exactly what.

I don't doubt that this article will spark furious allegations against Syngenta. But those who want to participate in this debate should keep something very simple in mind; science kowtows to no policy, even one designed to denigrate it. In your zeal to prosecute human being or corporations for unacceptable or criminal behavior, make sure that science does not become a casualty.

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