The EU postponed a decision Tuesday (8 March) on whether to extend the approval of a crucial weedkiller ingredient for another 15 years amid international uproar that it may cause cancer.
Glyphosate was first used in the 1970s as the active ingredient in the Monsanto herbicide Roundup and is now made generically around the world.
Regulators from the 28 EU members states, in addition to the European Commission, met over two days to decide the issue, but failed to find a decisive majority to either greenlight or reject the glyphosate re-approval.
A Commission official who spoke under condition of anonymity told AFP that the meeting ended without a decision and that “member states’ discussions will be continued at a next meeting of the committee”.
There is time for further discussions “as the deadline for any decision on a possible re-authorisation of glyphosate is the end of June”, the source added.
The executive deeply angered activists in November after its European Food Safety Agency published a report that said the chemical was “unlikely” to cause cancer, paving the way for re-approval.
The finding by the EU agency was a major win for Monsanto, which has lobbied hard to keep glyphosate off the EU’s list of unsafe chemicals.
It also ran afoul to the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which said last year that Roundup and similar products containing glyphosate were “probably” carcinogenic.
“Despite the UK and the European Commission lining up to protect Monsanto’s interests, governments across Europe have refused to treat their people as lab-rats and approve a new licence for glyphosate,” Alice Jay, campaign director for the Avaaz activist group said after the decision was delayed.
Czech S&D MEP Pavel Poc (Česká Strana Sociálně Demokratická) called the deferment “a big victory for our group and for citizens” and called for further scrutiny.
In a blog post, Monsanto Europe firmly backed the EU’s findings as “rigorous and transparent”.
“We expect this process to move forward in the coming weeks and that a vote of member states will take place in due course,” it said.
Keeping glyphosate legal is especially important for Monsanto as it looks to expand worldwide sales of its genetically modified crops, which are specifically engineered to resist glyphosate-based products.
This allows farmers to apply the product to fields much more indiscriminately to kill weeds.
The next meeting of the committee tasked with the decision is scheduled for 18 May.
Environmental campaign group Greenpeace said there was no rush to prolong the authorisation for glyphosate before an evaluation is made by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) at the end of 2017.
"ECHA is about to investigate the wider human health effects of glyphosate, following the WHO’s warnings. This process will only be finalised towards the end of 2017. If ECHA finds that glyphosate can cause cancer, interfere with reproduction or damage the hormone system, then it can no longer be sold, according to EU law," Greenpeace said in a statement.
“Rushing to grant a new licence now, without waiting for an evaluation by Europe’s chemical agency, would be like skydiving without checking your equipment first, " said Franziska Achterberg, EU food policy director at Greenpeace. "As long as there is conflicting scientific advice, glyphosate should not be approved for use in the EU. And countries would be better advised to do without it.”
The Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament welcomed the decision to delay authorisation of glyphosate as "encouraging" in light of "conflicting scientific advice" on the health risks posed by the substance as well as "public opposition".
"While the European Food Safety Authority gave a positive assessment of glyphosate, this opinion itself has been subject to criticism in the scientific community. Given the serious health concerns and conflicting scientific advice, the Commission should be respecting its duty to apply the precautionary principle and not approving of this highly controversial substance. As long as the manufacturers fail to demonstrate an absence of harm, glyphosate should not be approved for use in the EU."
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”.
- 18 May: Next meeting of the committee tasked with the decision on glyphosate
- End of June: Deadline for decision on a possible re-authorisation of glyphosate.
- End 2017: European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) expected to finalise evaluation of glyphosate.