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Chafer Sentry applying glyphosate to stubbles in North Yorkshire on a sunny December day. Photo: Chafer Machinery via Flickr (CC BY).
Chafer Sentry applying glyphosate to stubbles in North Yorkshire on a sunny December day. Photo: Chafer Machinery via Flickr (CC BY).
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Another 15 years? EU set to relicense glyphosate

Arthur Neslen / Guardian Environment

25th February 2016

The European Commission is poised to renew the licence for glyphosate - the herbicide last year deemed ‘probably carcinogenic' by the WHO - for another 15 years. The decision follows from EFSA's contrary finding, based on secret, non peer-reviewed, industry-funded studies.

Glyphosate was once described by Monsanto as 'safe as table salt'. Now science is telling us that it's a serious threat for our health and the environment. Ignoring the evidence for another 15 years will cost us dearly.

The European Commission plans to give a new 15-year lease to a controversial weedkiller that was deemed "probably carcinogenic to humans" by the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

A draft implementing law seen by the Guardian says the Commission has decided it is appropriate to renew the licence for glyphosate after a lengthy review, which sparked a scientific storm.

EU national representatives will vote on whether to relicense glyphosate at a meeting of the Council of Ministers in Brussels on 7th March.

Glyphosate is a key ingredient in bestselling herbicides such as Monsanto's Roundup brand and is so widely used that traces of its residues are routinely found in British breads.

The EU's food watchdog, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) ruled in November that the substance was unlikely to be carcinogenic, in a move welcomed by the agricultural industry.

But that advice triggered a backlash, with 96 prominent experts, including almost the whole IARC team, taking the unusual step of calling for the EFSA decision to be disregarded.

EFSA view based on unpublished industry studies

The EFSA ruling had relied on six industry-funded and partly unpublished studies and was "not credible because it is not supported by the evidence", the scientists wrote in a letter (pdf) to the EU's health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis.

Earlier this week, another 14 scientists signed a consensus statement in the journal Environmental Health, saying regulatory estimates of tolerable exposure levels for glyphosate were based on outdated science.

The Labour party's shadow environment secretary, Kerry McCarthy, said the public had understandable concerns about the possible impact of substances such as glyphosate on their health.

She told the Guardian: "Public policy should always be evidence based and guided by the best available science. There must be transparency and accountability throughout the process, with the evidence behind the policy making published and made available, so that the public can have full confidence in - or the information they need to challenge - this decision."

The Commission's draft renewal says there was an "extraordinarily high" number of comments from the public and member states during the review.

Monsanto used to claim it was 'as safe as table salt'

The paper does propose some restrictions on the use of glyphosate. National authorities should enforce risk-mitigation measures such as protective clothing for crop sprayers, and ensure the glyphosate used in herbicides they may authorise is the same formulation as was tested by EFSA.

The renewal calls for further studies on the endocrine disrupting potential of glyphosate to be completed before August.

However, environmentalists said the proposal flew in the face of a censure of the commission by the EU ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, earlier this week for accepting proof of a pesticide's safety after its use had already been authorised.

Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU's food policy director, said: "Glyphosate was once described by Monsanto as 'safe as table salt'. Now science is telling us that it's a serious threat for our health and the environment. Ignoring the evidence for another 15 years will cost us dearly. Europe needs an exit strategy from chemical pesticides."

A spokesman for the European Crop Protection Association said: "If the European Commission deems a renewal appropriate, we would hope that EU member states would then support such a proposal."

Public fears about glyphosate were evident again this week as about 3,000 boxes of 'organic' women's panty liners were removed from store shelves in France and Canada after they were found to contain traces of glyphosate.

Greens: a 'scandalous proposal'

Commenting on the proposal, Green agriculture and public health spokesperson Martin Häusling said: "It is scandalous that the European Commission is willing to simply ignore the considerable scientific concern expressed about the health risks of glyphosate and is instead proposing to continue to allow its use for 15 more years, without any restrictions.

"The finding that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans by the WHO should be leading to a global moratorium on its use. However, the industry lobby has been aggressively pushing to maintain its products on the market, at the expense of human health.

"While the European Food Safety Authority gave a positive assessment of glyphosate, this opinion itself has been subject to strong criticism in the scientific community. The European Commission cannot simply be rubber-stamper of EFSA opinions. Given the serious health concerns and conflicting scientific advice, the Commission should be respecting its duty to apply the precautionary principle and not steamrolling through approval of this highly controversial substance. 

"To make things worse, the Commission is not proposing any legally-binding conditions for the use of glyphosate, despite even EFSA having acknowledged a long-term risk for mammals, and despite the endocrine disrupting properties of glyphosate not having been properly assessed. It is also proposing to permit its use more generally and not just as a herbicide, as was previously the case. 

"We should not be rolling the dice when there is clear evidence of environmental risks and serious concerns of health impacts. As long as the manufacturers fail to demonstrate an absence of harm in a transparent manner, glyphosate should not be approved for use in the EU.

"EU governments must not give in to this perverted logic and should oppose the reapproval of glyphosate at their meeting on 7 March."



Arthur Neslen is the Europe environment correspondent at the Guardian. He has previously worked for the BBC, the Economist, Al Jazeera, and EurActiv, where his journalism won environmental awards. He has written two books about Israeli and Palestinian identity.

This article was originally published on the Guardian Environment and is republished with thanks via the Guardian Environment Network. This version contains some additional reporting by The Ecologist.


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