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23rd Feb 2020

Doubts over EU chemical agency after weedkiller study

  • Last year saw important public resistance to glyphosate. (Photo: Moritz Richter/Campact)

Green MEPs and health and environment NGOs said the European Chemicals Agency (Echa) could be suffering from lack of transparency.

The criticism came after the Helsinki-based agency said earlier that day that there wasn't sufficient scientific evidence to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen.

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Echa's assessment, which was published on Wednesday (15 March) had been long-awaited.

Many people believe glyphosate, the world’s most widely-used weed-killing substance, causes cancer.

A substantial public campaign last year urged EU governments and the European Commission not to renew the marketing authorisation for glyphosate, after it expired last June.

EU governments failed time and time again to agree on the matter in the so-called comitology procedure, where their scientific experts are represented. The decision eventually landed with the commission, which suggested to temporarily extend the marketing permit by 18 months while waiting for Echa's opinion.

The European Parliament's Green group said Echa's opinion "doesn't answer all the questions on glyphosate".

Troubling transparency

A group of Green MEPs have asked for industry studies on glyphosate, in order to make their own scientific assessment. The MEPs have to date only received a partial reply, with heavily redacted studies.

Greens/EFA transparency spokesperson Benedek Javor said: “Today’s decision demonstrates again why we need greater transparency on the studies used to judge glyphosate’s safety.

"This controversy will continue, and citizens will continue to have understandable doubts regarding the safety of glyphosate, until the studies used are made public," he added.

The Health and Environment Alliance (Heal) said on Wednesday that Echa's opinion contradicts that of the gold standard of cancer evaluation - the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) - which classified glyphosate as a "probable carcinogen" in 2015.

Heal said the contradiction "feeds public suspicion about the reliability of EU scientific agencies’ opinions" and that there was "growing unease exists about the lack of transparency in the classification process of the European agencies".

Greenpeace, Heal and many other groups sent a letter last week to the commission, saying that Echa was using “unpublished scientific evidence provided by industry in formulating its opinions”, in addition to studies published in peer-reviewed journals.

The letter also expressed concerns about the conflicts of interest of some of the members of the Echa expert committee, and asked the health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, to "enforce and improve Echa's policies to safeguard its independence from industry and transparency of its work".

Andriukaitis himself suggested that some kind of reform might be needed, according to the meeting minutes from a European Commission college meeting in February.

According to the minutes, the health commissioner felt that "in certain publicly controversial cases within his portfolio, member states were tempted to evade their responsibilities … by leaving the commission to take unpopular decisions alone".

Lack of confidence

The Lithuanian lawmaker, who is a heart surgeon by profession, added that "the main problem was the public's lack of confidence in science and the feeling that Europe was not sufficiently protecting them from the effects of certain chemical substances."

The commission last month unveiled a proposal for comitology reforms, in a bid to have member states share the flak for controversial decisions.

But Andriukaitis felt that that there was also a need for “a reform of the EU agencies responsible for providing the scientific basis for these decisions and of their procedures, to make them more transparent”.

The commission will re-start discussions with member states as regards the approval of glyphosate in a few months, after it receives Echa's opinion, which first has to go through an editorial check.

A commission spokesman told EUobserver he expected a decision to be taken within six months of receipt of Echa's opinion, or by the end of 2017 at the latest.

Echa said it had full access to published, peer-reviewed studies on glyphosate, as well as industry reports. It also used any scientifically relevant information received during a public consultation in summer 2016.

The European Crop Protection Association (Ecpa), the umbrella organisation for pest control companies, welcomed the assessment.

Ecpa spokesman Graeme Taylor said: "Science prevailed."

"We expect the European Commission to move swiftly with the registration process for the substance in the EU and grant a 15-year approval – the same approval that was originally suggested by the EC before the substance became the subject of a political and emotional debate rather than a scientific one," he added.

EU declines to renew glyphosate licence

Member states did not agree on conditions to renew the permit for the chemical used in pesticides, amid contradictory evidence on a possible cancer link.

EU fails to reach weed-killer deal, again

Painful process to agree on use of glyphosate, a weed-killing chemical linked to a cancer scare, could end up with EU Commission taking unilateral action.

Brussels wants EU states to share flak for GMO approvals

European Commission proposes changes to the little-known but often used comitology procedure, which results in deadlocks whenever controversial issues like genetically modified organisms are on the table.

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