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28th Aug 2016

Belgian ministers take action in EU weed killer dispute

  • Anti-glyphosate protest in Germany (Photo: Moritz Richter/Campact)

Regional environment ministers in the Brussels and Wallonia jurisdictions in Belgium have said they will ban glyphosate - a pesticide which some say probably causes cancer and whose EU stamp of approval is up for renewal.

The ministers, Celine Fremault and Carlo Di Antonio, said on Tuesday (8 March) in a joint statement that they were “stunned” that Belgium’s federal government had supported a European Commission proposal to renew glyphosate approval for another 15 years.

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  • Monsanto's Roundup, sold also in Denmark, is the most famous application of glyphosate (Photo: Jacob Bøtter)

“Environment ministers Carlo Di Antonio and Celine Fremault agree that pesticides like glyphosate represent a real risk for human health and the environment,” the statement said.

They spoke amid disagreement this week by EU governments on the future of the substance, a weed-killer that was put on the market by US company Monsanto in the 1970s.

Monsanto sells glyphosate under the brand name Roundup and also offers farmers genetically modified crops that are resistant to glyphosate.

Its EU authorisation is due to expire at the end of June. The European Commission proposed to extend the approval, based on positive advice by the European Food Safety Authority, an EU agency in Parma, Italy.

Environmentalists have waged a campaign against the renewal because the World Health Organization's (WHO’s) cancer agency found last year that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”.

EU states’ experts at a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday failed to reach agreement on the file.

Greenpeace and the European Parliament's Green group welcomed the discord.

“The growing opposition among EU governments to reapproving glyphosate for use in the EU is encouraging,” German Green MEP Martin Haeusling said in a press release.

“We hope this postponement will convince more EU governments to join in opposing the approval of this controversial substance.”

Greenpeace asked countries to wait for an assessment of the effect of glyphosate on human health by the European Chemicals Agency, another commission offshoot based in Helsinki. Its conclusions are expected at the end of 2017.

“Rushing to grant a new licence now, without waiting for an evaluation by Europe’s chemical agency, would be like skydiving without checking your equipment first,” said Greenpeace's Franziska Achterberg.

“As long as there is conflicting scientific advice, glyphosate should not be approved for use in the EU,” she said.

A glyphosate industry group said last month in a statement that the pesticide “has a long history of safe use across the world”.

The WHO classification of “probably carcinogenic” applies to a wide range of substances, including anabolic steroids.

Glyphosate falls in “group 2A” of the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer. Last October, the agency announced that red meat also posed a group 2A risk. It classified the consumption of processed meat in an even higher risk group - “group 1 carcinogens”.

The glyphosate dispute highlights a broader divergence in Europe.

EU policy on genetically modified organisms (GMO) is also applied in different ways in member states. Parts of European society are more open to scientific recommendations, but other parts take an emotional approach to chemical and GMO products.

The European Commission on Tuesday gave a limited comment on the EU’s internal delay.

“Discussions are ongoing, and that's all I can say from our point of view”, its spokesman, Alexander Winterstein, said.

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