A vote on whether to extend EU-wide authorisation for the controversial weedkiller Glyphosate has exposed reluctance among member states to take a clear position on a defining issue for European agriculture.
Last Wednesday (1 June), the European Commission called a meeting of the EU Plants Animals Food and Feed Committee on 6 June, in order to discuss a limited extension (12-18 months) of the current authorisation for glyphosate, until ECHA gives a scientific assessment of the substance.
Glyphosate was first used in the 1970s as the active ingredient in the Monsanto herbicide Roundup, which is now one of the world’s most popular weedkillers.
A collective decision
Commission sources told EurActiv.com last week that it was a collective decision, saying, “We look forward to a response from the member states.”
“Our scientific process is very stringent and relies on (the) pooling of expertise between the European Food Safety Authority and all 28 member states,” Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said, adding that the executive’s objective is to find a solution that “commands the widest possible support from the member states”.
“So far, even though a majority of member states is in favor of the renewal, no qualified majority has been reached in spite of the Commission’s efforts to accommodate requests and concerns from a number of national governments, as well as from the European Parliament,” he said.
“The ball is now in the member states’ court,” Andriukaitis stressed.
The EU Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed will meet today (6 June), and the vote on glyphosate is expected to take place in the morning.
A qualified majority is needed for the Commission proposal to pass, meaning a 55% majority of member states (16 countries) representing 65% of the total EU population voting in favour.
This means the stance of member states such as France, Germany, and Italy will be crucial for the outcome of the vote.
French Minister of Environment Ségolène Royal, recently said that Paris would vote against the re-authorisation.
EU sources in Brussels confirmed it was highly unlikely that Paris would vote in favour, given the negative pubic opinion on glyphosate and the ongoing protests against economic reforms in France. This is despite a widespread use of the weedkiller among French farmers.
On the other hand, Germany will most probably abstain from the vote while Italy, which has the third largest population in the EU, is not willing to take a political risk at this stage.
“No outcome” vote expected
Three scenarios have emerged regarding today’s vote.
- The first suggests that a qualified majority will be reached, pushing forward the Commission’s proposal to re-authorise glyphosate for 12-18 months.
- The second scenario assumes a qualified majority votes against authorisation. Glyphosate’s usage in the EU would therefore be banned at the end of June, when the current authorisation expires. But the use will be allowed for a further six months in order to avoid distortions.
- The third and most likely scenario is a “no-opinion” from the committee.
Last week, a vast majority of member states were ready to vote in favour of the authorisation, an EU source told EurActiv. But as long as the three big member states were not among them, the 65% criterion could not fulfilled.
“This is a paradox,” the source explained. “In such a scenario the case will be referred to the Appeal Committee which will have to make a decision within days”.
The Appeal Committee is activated in the event of a “no outcome” vote. It is made up of representatives from the member states and is chaired by the Commission under the same voting rules. It is not a permanent body, but rather a procedural tool, which gives EU countries the opportunity to have a second discussion at a higher level of representation.
Taking into account the current political balances among the member states, the case will probably be sent back to the European Commission. The executive will then be able to implement its decision for a temporary extension until ECHA publishes its final assessment.
In practice, this means member states are again hiding behind the Commission, critics say.
A disproportionate decision
The Glyphosate Task Force, a consortium of companies promoting the renewal of the European authorisation, stated that it was “highly regrettable” that member states had failed to reach agreement on the approval.
“This is despite the outcome of comprehensive scientific evaluations which clearly conclude that glyphosate poses no unacceptable risks,” it said in a statement.
“The [European Commission] proposal to extend the existing approval period in order to take account of the ECHA classification of glyphosate sets a precedent which is disproportionate in the context of the rules and procedures related to the authorization of active substances.”
A report published this month by the World Health Organisation suggested that glyphosate was unlikely to cause cancer. The review, carried out by pesticide experts from the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organisation said “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet”.
This contradicted earlier studies by a WHO agency which classified the substance as “probably” carcinogenic.
In addition, another survey conducted by ADquation for the Glyphosate Task Force, suggested that 90% of farmers and 95% of winemakers who are glyphosate users “encounter technical economic or agronomic difficulties, in case of withdrawal of the active substance”.
Referring to a European Parliament vote in April calling for a ban on all private uses of glyphosate, it urged the Commission to listen to public health concerns “by at the very least applying strict restrictions to limit human exposure”.
Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace’s EU food policy director, told EurActiv that the European Commission could not dodge its responsibility to protect Europeans and the environment.”
“It doesn’t make sense for the Commission to push for an unrestricted glyphosate licence, while saying countries should limit human exposure,” she said. “It must at the very least endorse precautionary restrictions at the EU level, until the scientific debate is settled.”
French MEP: Don’t sacrifice Europeans’ health
Contacted by EurActiv, French Socialist MEP Gilles Pargneaux said that following pressure from the European Parliament, and from several member states, the executive proposed an 18-months re-authorisation instead of the initial 15 years.
This should provide time to the ECHA to “make a statement on the dangers of the product,” he noted. But if a majority does not support this proposal today (June 6), glyphosate will automatically be withdrawn from the European market on 30 June 2016.
“This is what I wish for: that glyphosate be completely banned from Europe!” he told EurActiv.
“Since the beginning of 2016, I have been leading a difficult fight against Monsanto who has been intoxicating us for 30 years with its herbicide glyphosate better known by the name Roundup,” he stressed, adding that health and food safety of Europeans must not be sacrificed in favour of the economic interests of a corporation.
“The precautionary principle must systematically prevail […]Our Europe must before all things be a protective Europe!”
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said in November 2015 that glyphosate was unlikely to cause cancer in humans and proposed higher limits on the amount of residue of the weedkiller deemed safe for humans to consume.
The EFSA advises EU policymakers and its conclusion were expected to pave the way for the 28-member European Union to renew approval for glyphosate, which was brought into use by Monsanto in the 1970s and is used in its top selling product Roundup as well as in many other herbicides around the world.
Environmental groups have been calling for a ban after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organisation, said in March 2015 that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
A campaign group said that 1.4 million people had signed a petition calling on the European Union to suspend glyphosate approval pending further assessment.
The EFSA said it had carried out a thorough analysis and taken account of the IARC’s findings. Greenpeace, for its part, called the EFSA’s report “a whitewash”.