4th Mar 2024

EU states at crossroads on weed-killer renewal

  • Glyphosate, previously sold commercially by Monsanto as Roundup, is the most widely used herbicide in the world (Photo: Global Justice Now)
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Representatives from EU governments will, on Thursday (12 October), discuss the European Commission's proposal to renew the glyphosate's market license for another 10 years.

The debate will be followed by a vote on Friday.

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  • The herbicide has been the subject of many studies and legal disputes, particularly regarding its potential to cause cancer and Parkinson's disease (Photo: Felix Kindermann / Campact)

The move has become embroiled in controversy, with allegations of EU agencies ignoring scientific evidence and lawsuits to give in to lobby tactics of companies marketing the product.

And it remains unclear if there is a majority to approve the renewal, given the divisions among EU member states on the matter.

"Protecting human and environmental health is a top priority of this commission," said EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides. "We proposed the renewal of glyphosate following the science."

Glyphosate, previously sold commercially by Monsanto as Roundup, is the most widely used herbicide in the world.

However, environmental activists, scientists and concerned citizens worry about both long-term consequences for the environment and impacts on human well-being for the next decade.

They argue that the widespread use of glyphosate has resulted in contamination of soils and surface water, as well as in toxic effects on animals and humans.

"Glyphosate's toxic effects are well known to scientists, and no political bargain to keep it on the market will make this chemical 'safe'," said Eva Corral, a campaigner from Greenpeace.

Corral said that the EU and member states should end its use this year and focus on achieving "toxic-free European farming," instead of giving in to industry pressure and lobby strategies that aimed to keep glyphosate out there.

All eyes on Germany

The approved use of glyphosate in the bloc is set to expire in mid-December. This means that EU member states must now reach a consensus on whether to grant approval for the herbicide's use to extend until 2034.

If a qualified majority in favour of the renewal is reached within the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food, and Feed this week, the renewal will move forward.

However, France is pushing for an alternative proposal, and it is expected to abstain. The Netherlands is also expected to abstain, according to Dutch media.

And Austria and Luxemburg are likely to vote against the renewal.

Luxembourg made history as the first EU country to ban the herbicide in 2022, but the Grand Duchy later had to reauthorise its use due to legal actions pursued by Bayer.

Nevertheless, the pivotal question is whether Germany will cast a 'no' vote, honouring previous commitments outlined in the coalition agreement.

"Any extension of the use of glyphosate would contradict the German government's coalition treaty where phasing out the pesticide until the end of this year was agreed by all three parties," German Green MEP Jutta Paulus told EUobserver.

If no qualified majority is reached this week, the proposal will go to the appeal committee for further discussion. This second meeting will be organised within a month.

Probably carcinogenic?

While for many glyphosate is still unfamiliar, the herbicide has been the subject of many studies and legal disputes, particularly regarding its potential to cause cancer and Parkinson's disease.

However, research has presented evidence both in favour of and against these carcinogenic effects, creating ample room for politicisation.

The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer already in 2015 classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic" to humans — prompting calls from campaigners and citizens to ban it.

And similar concerns have been echoed by individual scientists.

"Even a very low level of exposure to glyphosate herbicide can result in serious disease, including cancer in the long term," warned Michael Antoniou, a professor at King's College London who has been investigating the toxicity of glyphosate for more than a decade.

However, the EU chemicals agency (ECHA) said last year that classifying glyphosate as carcinogenic was "not justified".

Industrial data vs. academic papers

EU agencies have been accused of relying mainly on industrial data for their conclusions, but the ECHA argues that "all relevant information was taken into account".

ECHA scientific assessment included industry studies (as required by EU law), studies from the public domain and comments from interested parties.

"However, well-carried-out and standardised studies are given greater weight in the assessment," ECHA told EUobserver.

According to European food safety agency (EFSA), their peer-reviewed conclusions on glyphosate are based on a total of 2,400 studies — of which 700 come from academic papers.

On biodiversity impacts, EFSA experts have acknowledged the complex nature of risks associated with glyphosate's typical applications, arguing that the current available information does not allow "firm conclusions" to be drawn on.

Meanwhile, the Glyphosate Renewal Group (GRG), a group of companies whose aim is to ensure the renewal of the herbicide, spent €300,000 — 399,999 on lobbying in the EU in 2021, via the PR firm Hume Brophy, according to the EU Transparency Register.

The lobby expenditure for 2021 was increased compared to the  €200,000 — €299,999 spent in 2019 and 2020.

In 2017, an EU petition signed by more than one million people also called for a ban on glyphosate.

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