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19th Jan 2020

MEPs to look for 'bullet-proof' pesticide approval

  • Monsanto factory: US giant was given only a five-year renewal for Roundup, after public and political opposition (Photo: arbyreed)

The glyphosate saga is not over yet.

On Tuesday (6 February) the European Parliament voted to set-up its own special committee to review future pesticide authorisations.

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That follows a defeat for those MEPs, NGOs and concerned citizens who had lobbied for a total ban on glyphosate - the controversial herbicide used in Monsanto's Roundup - when the EU decided to allow a five-year renewal in November 2017.

Anti-glyphosate MEPs and activists hope the new committee will give a more transparent and scientifically-accurate process of authorisation of herbicides, following claims and counter-claims over an initial declaration of glyphosate as "carcinogenic" by one international cancer agency, only to be over-ruled by EU agencies.

While that discussion surrounding glyphosate has been "the driver or catalyst" for setting up the committee, it will not be "the only focus," MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy of the liberal ALDE group told EUobserver.

"We have to look very critically on how we authorise and eventually use pesticides," Gerbrandy added.

Frederique Ries, an ALDE MEP and member of the environment committee, praised the decision, saying EU food safety standards were the "highest in the world," but the Union needs to review some issues concerning the authorisation of pesticides.

According to the text voted by the plenary, the PEST committee has to specifically assess and analyse the "scientific quality" of the authorisation procedure, along with its "independence from industry."

Green/EFA MEP Bart Staes said "they need to be fully transparent and based on public scientific findings, not secret industry-funded studies" in order to gain public trust.

Decisions on the approval of pesticides must be based on "indisputable and up-to-date scientific findings" entirely free from undue industry influence, added Ries.

The committee should also look into the "the transparency of the decision-making process," meaning that it will analyse how the commission and the relevant EU agencies have carried out their respective responsibilities, whilst exploring whether they are sufficiently staffed and resourced, the draft text says.

However, these agencies currently lack resources warned Ries, pointing out that the budget of the European Food Safety Authority for 2017 was €80 million, compared with the European Medicines Agency's budget of €322 million.

The Belgian MEP insisted that PEST will look carefully into these issues so that "the authorisation procedure is improved and becomes bullet-proof.

Soft power only

On Thursday (8 February) the plenary in Strasbourg will elect 30 MEPs as members of the committee, which will have a nine months, extendable, mandate.

"It is expected that most of the members will come from the environment (ENVI), agriculture (AGRI) and industry (ITRE) committees," Gerbrandy told EUobserver.

There will be nine MEPs from the European People's Party (EPP), eight from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), three both from the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), according to Gerbrandy.

Two members of the PEST committee will come from the the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), two from the Greens (Greens/EFA), two from the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and one from the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF)."

According to a European Parliament official, among the members of the committee there will be MEPs who are already experts on the issue, including Staes for the Greens, Eric Andrieu for the S&D, as well as Gerbrandy and Frederique Ries for ALDE.

The committee will be responsible for delivering a final report with findings and recommendations, to be approved by the full house.

The report drafted by the committee will not have any legal influence on the final decision of the commission about the renewal of pesticides, but just a 'soft power' influence, useful to "shed light on something," a parliament spokesperson said.

However, the commission will need to "deliver comprehensive legislative proposals to fill all the gaps in the authorisation procedure," said Ries.

What the committee could influence, Gerbrandy concluded, is to make sure that the procedure is held under more transparent and stringent guidelines "so that the discussion does not become too heavily politicized as has happened with glyphosate."

The report will not have any retrospective influence on the previously-taken decision about the renewal of glyphosate.

Carcinogenic - or not?

The background to the creation of PEST were documents from the US company Monsanto, that in March 2017 shed doubt on the credibility of some studies used in the EU agencies' evaluation on glyphosate safety to allow its renewal.

These agencies classified glyphosate as unlikely to be carcinogenic - despite previously the International Agency for Research on Cancer (a branch of the World Health Organization), had classified glyphosate as probably carcinogenic to humans.

Following revelations that some of the studies used by the EU agencies appeared to be a 'copy paste' of Monsanto's assessments, in October 2017 the European Parliament tried to block the renewal of glyphosate.

A EU-wide petition of one million citizens was also presented to the parliament.

The renewal was eventually approved in November 2017 by EU member states, although only for five years.

This article was amended on February 8 to correct the fact that Frederique Ries is a Belgian MEP not a French one, and Eric Andrieu is a SD MEP, not member of the Greens

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