Compared with some of history’s more notable rivalries – Wellington and Napoleon, Gladstone and Disraeli, Ali and Frazier – a spat between two relatively unknown Belgian academics is hardly likely to resonate within the wider public consciousness.
But for anyone hoping to make a living from conventional farming, the events that led to the recent removal of David Zaruk from his post as adjunct professor of communications at the Université Saint-Louis in Brussels add a somewhat graver significance than one might imagine.
See also: The glyphosate debate explained
Prof Zaruk is better known to anyone who followed the agonising process that led to EU’s last minute re-licencing of glyphosate by his online nom-de-plume, the Risk Monger.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that he probably did more than anyone else, via his excellent blog, to expose the level to which that process was being hijacked by the anti-science lobby in Brussels.
In short, Prof Zaruk brought to light the extent to which scientific evidence that conclusively disproved the alleged carcinogenicity of glyphosate was being manipulated by NGO-funded lobbyists and academics to undermine public confidence in the safety of the world’s most widely used herbicide.
Prof Zaruk has long argued against the prevailing “precautionary principle” approach to assessing the safety of pesticides in Europe, which seemingly demands absolute certainty regarding the toxicity, or absence thereof, of any pesticide, at any level of exposure, irrespective of the wider benefits its judicious and appropriate use might impart.
His exposure of the ideologically motivated campaign to discredit glyphosate brought him into conflict with a number of politically powerful adversaries, among them Olivier de Schutter, a high-profile pro-agroecology campaigner and long-time antagonist of Monsanto.
Prof de Schutter is currently actively seeking support from fellow academics across Europe to pressure the EU into reversing its glyphosate relicensing decision.
His day job is professor of human rights law at the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. That university has recently merged with Prof Zaruk’s former employer, the Universite Saint-Louis Bruxelles, to form a new entity called UC Louvain.
While the word “takeover” might perhaps be a tad vulgar for some academic sensibilities, the name of the new institution on the other hand speaks volumes about the balance of power in that relationship.
In April this year, barely months after the EU reapproved glyphosate’s licence, Prof Zaruk was summonsed to his vice-rector’s office to defend his position on glyphosate and biotechnology generally – a position that was deemed damaging to the university’s reputation.
He was duly informed that his post was being made vacant and that he could, if he wished, re-apply for it. Interesting timing, if nothing else.
Prof Zaruk decided, probably wisely, that to do so would only result in more personal humiliation and thus chose not to re-apply.
But he commented in his blog: “The one thing that does bother me from this lamentable affair is the inherent hypocrisy or double standards. Just imagine if I had been an anti-industry, pro-organic campaigner who was fired for my passionate views against agritech, and the assassin with blood on his hands was an industry lawyer…”
So, the next time you fill your spray tank with Roundup, spare a thought for David Zaruk, a true farming hero. His blog can be found at www.risk-monger.com