The European Commission has decided to extend the licence for glyphosate by 18 months, after member states failed to achieve a qualified majority in favour or against the executive’s proposal.
Both NGOs and the industry criticised the Commission’s final decision on glyphosate, an active ingredient used in Monsanto’s RoundUp, the world’s most widely sold herbicide.
Last Friday (24 June) at the Appeal Committee, EU member states voted on the proposal to extend the current approval of glyphosate for a limited period of time, until the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) gives an opinion on the substance.
ECHA’s opinion is expected no later than 31 December 2017.
— European Commission (@EU_Commission) June 29, 2016
In a previous vote on 6 June, member states in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed had already failed to reach a qualified majority in favour or against the re-authorisation of glyphosate.
“The Commission regrets that no decision could be taken by the member states, in spite of its efforts over recent weeks to accommodate requests and concerns from a number of national governments, as well as from the European Parliament,” an EU spokesman told EURACTIV.com.
“We know very well that we have a deadline of June 30. We will adopt an extension for glyphosate of 18 months,” Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, stressed.
Citizens and NGOs have long campaigned against the licence being renewed, given widely-reported concerns about the possible consequences it could have on human health and the environment. Glyphosate is in fact an omnipresent force in Europe, as a German study showed that traces of it have been found in 99.6% of the country’s population.
Concentrations of the herbicide in urine samples were found to be between five and 42 times higher than the maximum amount permitted in drinking water in Europe.
France is leading the fight against glyphosate’s continued use, after a petition launched by Foodwatch, Générations Futures and the Ligue contre le cancer garnered around 156,000 signatures. The NGOs claimed that “69% of French people are against re-authorisation”.
The controversy has been fuelled by the conflicting conclusions of a number of official bodies on the dangers of glyphosate, as well as lingering doubts about the assessment tools used by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
The EFSA has essentially ruled that glyphosate is non-carcinogenic, in contrast to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which judged it to be “probably carcinogenic”. The results of the EFSA study have been criticised by NGOs for relying heavily on data supplied by agrochemical giant Monsanto.
Générations Futures has even taken the step of lodging a complaint of aggravated fraud with the public prosecutor’s office in Paris, alleging that numerous agencies had “underestimated the dangers posed by glyphosate”.
The French government, as well as Malta, came out against reauthorisation; seven countries abstained from the last vote, as they all uphold the precautionary principle.
Additionally, France has classed glyphosate as an endocrine disruptor since 2011. The country’s health minister, Marisol Touraine, added that “regardless of the debate on whether it is carcinogenic or not, we believe, and our studies show, that it is an endocrine disruptor”.
Marc Tarabella MEP (S&D group) denounced the Commission’s decision to renew the licence, calling it “an absurd decision”. The Belgian politician added that “Monsanto’s profit has been put before the health of 500 million Europeans” and he accused the European institutions, multinational companies and national governments of being “deaf, blind and mute”, respectively.
Another report published in June 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.
Industry not satisfied
The pesticides industry is not pleased either with the final outcome of the process.
Graeme Taylor, European Crop Protection spokesperson, noted that this was not a victory for the industry.
“I’m sure many will paint this as some kind of victory for our industry, but frankly we are disappointed that after the European Commission originally proposed a 15-year re-approval, we are now left with an 18-month extension, pending yet another assessment to add to the 90,000 pages and 3,500 studies of evidence that already exists,” he stressed, adding that this only serves to demonstrate that what should be a scientific process “has been completely undermined by politics”.
— Sam James Morgan (@SamJamesMorgan) June 29, 2016
French MEP Angélique Delahaye, the EPP’s rapporteur, highlighted that “the agricultural sector is largely dependent” on the herbicide. If alternatives exist, they are still marginal. Before glyphosate can be phased out, other means of crop protection have to be developed, according to the supporters of the Commission’s proposal.
“This decision is in line with the recommendations adopted by the European Parliament. In addition, and according to the resolution passed by the Parliament, I believe that the Commission has taken a reasonable decision pending the conclusions of the ECHA on the chemical classification of this substance,” the MEP added.
The EPP recommends that it is how glyphosate is used that should be regulated: “It is important to not only train professionals to a high standard, through a certificate of use, for example, but to also strictly regulate, even prohibit, its sale to non-professionals,” Delahaye said. “I have also asked the member states and the European Commission to work as quickly as possible on a list of prohibitable co-formulants, like POE-tallowamine, that’s where the real problem is!”
The European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) said it was “disappointed” by the Commission’s decision. It added that the drama surrounding the extension was “a blow to science-based EU decision making”. The association said that it believes the decision casts doubt on that system and shares Commissioner Andriukaitis’ view that decisions should not be based on political convenience.
The ECPA also added that “failure to re-approve glyphosate would have significant negative repercussions for the competitiveness of European agriculture, the environment, and the ability of farmers to produce safe and affordable food”.
Commenting on the Commission’s decision, Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg said: “The EU has decided to extend the use of glyphosate without any meaningful restriction, despite WHO warnings that it is a probable cause of cancer. This reckless decision was driven by a Commission that has lost touch with European citizens, quietly backed by many national governments."
"The end of 2017 is just around the corner. National and regional governments, and the European Commission should start preparing a glyphosate exit plan as soon as possible,” she added.
“The antagonism which has emerged from certain Member States regarding glyphosate renewal is highly regrettable and a sad sign of how politically charged these processes have become,” Glyphosate Task Force (GTF) Chairman Richard Garnett stressed.
Dr. Philip W. Miller, Monsanto’s vice president of global regulatory and governmental affairs, noted: “Today’s decision by the European Commission to temporarily extend glyphosate’s authorisation by 18 months ensures that European farmers, municipalities, gardeners and other users will continue to have access to the herbicide glyphosate while a longer-term solution to the product’s reauthorisation is found.”
“We join European farmers and other users in expressing concern over the recent rise of narrowly-focused politics of self interest, where national or partisan political imperatives take precedence over facts, scientific understanding and the interests of its citizens. Monsanto urges the European Commission to present without further undue delays a proposal for a full renewal under the regulatory framework,” he added.