EU declines to renew glyphosate licence
European experts failed again to take a decision on whether to renew a licence for glyphosate, the world’s widest-used weedkiller, during a meeting on Wednesday and Thursday (18-19 May).
The EU standing committee on plants, animals, food and feed (Paff), which brings together experts of all EU member states, failed to organise a vote. There was no qualified majority for such a decision.
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The current licence expires on 30 June. The Paff committee was expected to settle on the matter already in March, but postponed the vote after France, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden raised objections, mainly over the impact of glyphosate on human health.
The European Commission has since tabled two new proposals, both of which failed to convince the member states. The health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis insists that member states decide with a qualified majority because of the controversies involved.
A spokesperson said the commission will reflect on the discussions.
”If no decision is taken before 30 June, glyphosate will be no longer authorised in the EU and member states will have to withdraw authorisations for all glyphosate based products”, the spokesperson said.
Pekka Pesonen, the secretary general of agriculture umbrella organisation Copa-Cogeca, told EUobserver he regretted the outcome.
”This adds to uncertainty in an already pressured business”, he said.
Glyphosate is widely used by European farmers because it is cost-efficient and widely available on the market.
”Without it, production will be jeopardised. This raises questions about food safety, competitiveness of European farmers, as well as our commitments to climate change," Pesonen said.
"We use it for some farming practices such as no-till and minimum-tillage, helping to ensure less greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion.”
”Glyphosate is also recognised as safe by the EU food safety authority [Efsa]”, he added.
The world’s best-selling herbicide
Glysophate is the world’s widest-used weedkiller. It forms the core ingredient of US firm Monsanto's flagship product Roundup, but is also sold by other companies under other names.
Some crops have become resistant to the substance.
But the chemical is omnipresent in Europe. Residue has been found in German beer, British bread and the urine of members of the European Parliament.
Sciencists’ war of words
The World Health Organisation (WHO) cancer agency Iarc last year classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans".
Efsa drew a different conclusion in November 2015, saying that there was no scientific evidence of a cancer link.
The Joint meeting on pesticide residues (JMPR), an ad hoc expert committee administered jointly by the WHO and the FAO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, also said glysophate is "unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet”.
The JMPR report was published on Monday (16 May).
The studies are based on different sources. Iarc reviews are based on publicly available studies. Efsa and JMPR studies avail of a larger number of studies, including unpublished ones.
The WHO furthermore explains that Iarc identifies potential health hazards, while JMPR assesses the risk of chemicals in different doses. IARC’s work provides input to JMPR conclusions.
Bart Staes, a Green MEP who specialises in food safety, told EUobserver that part of the controversy is organised by ”lobbies”.
”There’s a real information war meant to influence the debate”, he said. ”They are spreading doubt, just like the tobacco industry used to do.”
Staes said it was no coincidence that the JMPR report came days before Paff’s meeting.
He pointed to conflicts of interests in the JMPR panel.
JMPR chair Alan Boobis is also the vice-chair of the International Life Sciences Institute (Ilsi). Ilsi is financed, among others, by Monsanto and other glyphosate producers, including industry group Croplife International. Another Ilsi member, Antonio Moretto, is the JMPR vice-chair.
Boobis claimed his role at Ilsi is managerial. But Efsa doesn’t allow Ilsi members sit on its panels. In 2012, a conflict involving Isli experts with a second hat as industry representatives made the European parliament cancel Efsa’s funding for six months.
The Green group wants a ban on glyphosate.
More than 1.4 million people have signed a petititon demanding the same.
Greenpeace, the environmental watchdog, said the commission needs to change course and take into account concerns raised by the European Parliament and Iarc.
"It also needs to solve the scientific conflict", its food policy director Franziska Achterberg said. She suggested an independent panel that would include members of both Iarc and JMPR, and others.
The Glyphosate Task Force (GTF), which represents producers, decried the EU regulatory procedure as "politicised".
“The GTF consider this situation to be discriminatory, disproportionate and wholly unjustified. Failure to follow the process appropriately and within a reasonable timeframe will only serve to seriously undermine the credibility of the EU legislative framework and put European agriculture at a competitive disadvantage,” GTF chairman Richard Garnett said in a statement.