Glyphosate approval: stakeholders squabble over who has the science right

Health and environmental campaigners have denounced the assessment procedure for the herbicide glyphosate for relying too much on industry studies. [SASCHA STEINBACH/EPA-EFE]

As the EU considers renewing its approval for the controversial herbicide glyphosate, the industry is defending the assessment procedure while environmental campaigners have denounced it for not being based on “sound science”.

While glyphosate as an active substance in plant protection products is currently authorised in the EU, approval is set to expire in December 2022. In late 2019, a renewal process was launched to decide whether the approval should be prolonged.

Currently, the use of glyphosate is widespread in the EU, with the substance representing a third of the herbicide volume sold in Europe in 2017 according to a study published in 2020.

The question of renewal remains highly controversial as views diverge over glyphosate’s impact on health and the environment.

In a 2015 assessment, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which forms part of the World Health Organisation, concluded that the substance was “probably carcinogenic”, that is, a driver of cancer for humans.

During the previous EU approval procedure, however, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency, (ECHA), concluded that “there is no evidence to link glyphosate to cancer in humans, based on the available information”.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has also approved the substance as “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.”

Both EFSA and ECHA are now assessing the renewal of their approval and concluded parallel public consultations on the issue on 22 November with a total of 416 submissions collected.

Comments and data submitted will now be considered by the Assessment Group as well as the ECHA’s Risk Assessment Committee, a spokesperson from EFSA told EURACTIV.

Once the committee gives its opinion on the health risks of glyphosate, this will “be used by EFSA and representatives of EU member state competent authorities to finalise the peer review of the pesticide risk assessment,” they added, saying this was expected to happen during the second half of 2022.

Re-assessing health risks

The plant protection industry stresses that much scientific data has been collected and assessed over the years by European safety authorities, concluding that the herbicide is safe.

“The scientific community and academia continued to do studies to investigate new aspects that were not covered in the evaluations before,” said Viriginie Ducrot from the Glyphosate Renewal Group (GRG).

Health and environmental campaigners, however, have criticised the assessment procedure. In an open letter sent to the Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides on 13 October, 41 NGOs voiced “concerns (…) in particular about the credibility of the studies that have been provided by industry” to justify the renewal.

“We have seen in the past that there was a lot of industry-based scientific assessment and evidence, while there was no access to scrutiny from the outside world,” Marco Contiero, policy director on Agriculture at Greenpeace, one of the signatories, told EURACTIV.

From Contiero’s perspective, the assessment process also does not sufficiently consider possible health threats that could arise from long-term exposure to small amounts of glyphosate, which is “much more complex to evaluate” than short-term, acute toxicity.

In her reply to the NGO letter, Kyriakides defended the process as all available information is considered to ensure rigorous and scientifically-robust assessment.

The Commission highlights that all studies are considered during the renewal process, both old and new, inviting NGOs to address their concerns as part of the peer-review process.

In exceptional circumstances of serious controversies or conflicting results, the EU executive may request EFSA to commission scientific studies with the objective of verifying evidence used in its risk assessment procedure.

But given that the peer review process of glyphosate has only started recently, “it seems premature to conclude at this point in time that there is a need for such verification studies”, Kyriakides’s reply reads.

Discord over environmental impact

Apart from the question of health risks, glyphosate’s impact – positive or negative – on the environment and biodiversity are also hotly debated.

Proponents of the renewal argue that glyphosate is key for practising so-called conservation agriculture, a farming approach meant to protect biodiversity and soil health by avoiding tillage.

“This is important because the life in the soil generally forms stratified layers,” Simon Jeffery, reader in soil ecology at Harper Adams University, said during a recent EURACTIV debate. “When we invert that soil through tillage, we destroy the habitat for this life,” he added.

According to him, glyphosate is “a key tool in the toolbox of conservation agriculture.”

'Conservationist' farmers confirm support for glyphosate renewal

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For Greenpeace’s Contiero, however, glyphosate and other herbicides are by no means effective tools for biodiversity-friendly farming, adding that the ongoing assessment procedure should pay more attention to the environmental risks of glyphosate.

Eric Gall, deputy director at organic farming lobby IFOAM, said that studies had shown a higher climate impact of organic farming practices, which avoid synthetic pesticides.

“Organic farming is the proof that you can indeed produce quality food without synthetic pesticides. You do not need glyphosate to achieve a higher level of carbon in soils,” he concluded.

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[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Alice Taylor]

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