After much intense debate and deadlock in Brussels, the world’s most used weed killer glyphosate has been given the green light to be used within the EU for another five years.
The final decision to give the glyphosate license renewal the go-ahead for another five years, which came in advance of the expiry date of the licence on the 15th December, comes in spite of a petition signed by 1.3 million European citizens in the space of under five months which, according to Citizens’ Committee member Mika Leandro, was a “record” for a petition presented by the committee.
Petitioners state that the weedkiller is a “serious threat to human health,” with demands cited within the petition being brought forward in a public hearing held within the European Parliament a week prior to the final vote. Those who signed the petition included farmers, environmental activists and other related non-governmental organisations.
In the aftermath of the decision in Brussels, the European Association of Agricultural Economists (EAAE) refused to comment.
The final vote on the 27th November, as observed by the European Commission’s Appeal Committee, saw 18 voting in favour of renewing the license of glyphosate use for another five years, with nine voting against and one abstaining.
The vote marked a relief, at least temporarily, from much indecision on the matter from within the Commission, as well as European Union parliamentarians and scientists. The final result of an earlier vote within the Commission on the 9th November, this time involving the Standing Committee on Plant Animal Food and Feed, could not come to a qualified majority. Only 14 member states voted for the proposal to renew the license, while nine opposed the proposal and five abstained from voting altogether.
Germany was one such notable abstaining member state on this occasion; besides the nation’s size and prominence within the EU giving it the ability to swing such votes, the country has been in the midst of negotiations relating to the possibility of a restoration of the state’s grand coalition, and many believed that said negotiations in Berlin would be done and dusted in time for Germany to come to a unanimous decision come 9th November, but to no avail.
Eventually, Germany’s conservative Agricultural Minister Christian Schmidt opted to vote for the five-year extension of the EU glyphosate license on the 27th November, to the anger of Chancellor Angela Merkel and Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks from the social democrat party, with Hendricks claiming a breach of trust. With German pharmaceutical and life-sciences giant Bayer set to merge with primary glyphosate producer Monsanto by early 2018, Berlin’s relationship with the weed killer could be set to become more complicated still.
No such disharmony was present within the ranks of Macron and company in neighbouring France. In addition to pushing for a decrease in the length of approval of glyphosate use from five years to three, the state continued to express their wish for a more natural and less harmful EU-approved alternative in pelargonic acid-based pesticides, the most prominent producer of which, Jade, is based just outside Bordeaux. Furthermore, in the wake of the final vote, French president Macron has promised to put into place a ban on glyphosate within three years, as approved under EU rules.
A similar stance is being adopted by Italy, the home of Novamont, a chemicals company and distribution partner of France-based agency Jade. A member of the state’s agriculture ministry, Bruno Caio Faraglia, has stated that pelargonic acid-based pesticides could be a viable option in the near future despite the product proving more expensive than glyphosate. In addition to this, a collaboration between Belgian, French and Italian chemical agencies in an attempt to develop a viable alternative to glyphosate has been planned since 2015, according to chemical company executives.
Just as indecision has marred recent discussions in Brussels, a lack of a unanimous consensus among health agencies across the world has also proved to be an issue. While a notable study conducted by the World Health Organisation-affiliated International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015 found that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic”, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the European Food Safety Authority both came to a different conclusion.
A spokesperson for the European Food Safety Authority said: “It has now been two years since the EFSA begun producing and publishing conclusions, and EFSA has found that it’s improbable that glyphosate causes cancer, as has been said by other scientific organisations like the European Chemicals Agency, the most authoritative body for classification.”
The EFSA are due to establish a fresh safety assessment on glyphosate in two years time.
“All chemicals that we test are toxic, so it’s important to make sure that those that are authorised are done so in a way that they cause no harm, not only to consumers who eat products that have pesticide in them but also to those who use the chemicals and those who live close to where these compounds are used.
“In simple terms, any chemical not authorised within the EU can be potentially dangerous. This is why there is such a strict regulation
“If chemicals abide by the current EU legislation, then they are safe. This is valid for all compounds that are found in the market, and that are used by farmers in the case of pesticides.
“The same goes for any other product that is found in the food system, for example additives, colours and sweeteners.”
Member of the Greens-European Free Alliance and the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Bas Eickhout played a part in drafting the proposal delivered to member states within the European Parliament, and he claims that the resolution “says very clearly that that we should phase out glyphosate”, but does not believe that the chemical should be gotten rid of straight away.
“We do see that for farmers who have been working for decades with it, they need some transition time. Therefore, the Parliament now has the decision.
“Glyphosate needs to be phased out, but for professional use, we should give it another five years, and we still hope that is going to be the decision among member states in the end.”
According to Mr Eickhout, the European Parliament had only taken over the responsibility of drafting proposals recently.
Speaking in the lead-up to the final vote on the 27th November, the Greens-European Free Alliance MEP said: “Until now, the Commission was doing the proposals, but they did not come up with this proposal.
“They started with a ten-year extension of allowance [of glyphosate] within the market, but that went down to five years, and now they’re discussing [the possibility of] three years.”
French president Emmanuel Macron’s decision to opt for a three-year window for farmers to find an alternative for glyphosate has not gone down well with some farmers, with the opinion that three years simply isn’t enough being shared.
Major glyphosate distributor Monsanto introduced its then-patented Roundup weed killer back in 1974, and has been a vital tool for many farmers since its introduction. However, as made evident by the participation of members of this trade in the petition presented by the Citizens’ Committee on the 20th November, the opinion of farmers towards the weed killer is far from unanimous.
Since Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate ran out in 2000, other companies such as Syngenta and Dow Agrosciences have since taken on the responsibility of distributing the chemical.
Bearing in mind the gradual decrease in time frames for renewal of the glyphosate licence within the EU from 10 years down to five, as well as the ever-present criticism of the weed killer in relation of doubts towards its safety and France and Italy’s urgent quest to find an alternative pesticide, it could be fair to say that the use of glyphosate within the EU continues to sprout many a dispute, and there is little sign of controversy ceasing in the near future.