The European Parliament this week (13 April) approved a seven-year extension to the authorisation of the chemical glyphosate, a suspected carcinogen present in many domestic and agricultural pesticides, notably Monsanto’s Roundup. EURACTIV France reports.
MEPs gave the go-ahead to the re-authorisation of glyphosate, but asked the European Commission to reduce the period to seven years, from the usual 15.
This is a defeat for France, which had hoped for a complete ban.
In their non-binding resolution, which passed by 374 votes to 225, with 104 abstentions, MEPs also approved a number of restrictive measures, including a ban on the sale of the chemical for use in domestic gardens and public parks.
Angélique Delahaye, a French MEP and rapporteur on the file for the European People’s Party (EPP) grouping in Parliament, said there were economic reasons to continue authorising glyphosate, despite health and environmental worries.
“The debate on glyphosate raises concerns among citizens, that’s obvious,” she said in a statement. But she recalled that farmers are “largely dependent” on the weedkiller and should be allowed to continue using it until an alternative is found.
“To this day, there is no suitable and economically viable alternative guaranteeing human health that can be proposed to farmers,” Delahaye stressed. “We must therefore think about the best solution in the medium and long term and not stick to a simple opposition of principle for electoral reasons.”
Delahaye’s argument regarding the absence of alternative is disputable since the Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants in Germany published a study in 2015, which concluded that farmers could largely do without glyphosate.
“Unlikely” to cause cancer
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organisation, last year classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” to humans. Glyphosate was brought into use by Monsanto in the 1970s and is used an ingredient in more than 750 herbicides around the world.
According to the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), an NGO, the restrictions proposed by Parliament do not go far enough, given the widespread use of the chemical and the fact that it is also suspected of being a hormone disruptor.
But despite a number of studies linking the product to human health problems, a recent evaluation of scientific evidence by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that glyphosate was “unlikely” to cause cancer.
Based on this study, the European Commission recommended that the glyphosate authorisation be renewed for a further 15 years, until 2031.
In the European Parliament, lawmakers from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, the Greens, the radical left GUE/NGL and Eurosceptic EFDD group jointly submitted a resolution against the renewal of the chemical’s authorisation, which was adopted by a large majority in the Parliament’s Environment committee on 22 March.
The authors of the resolution denounced the lack of transparency surrounding the EFSA evaluation, which they said was based on unpublished studies, “at best sponsored by the agrochemicals industry and at worst written by it”.
They also called on the Commission to back-track on its authorisation plans and carry out an independent evaluation of the effects of the pesticide on human health and the environment.
Monsanto dismissed these concerns in a statement, saying “The European approval process for pesticides is rigorous and transparent. In the case of glyphosate, this has been one of the most comprehensive and thorough evaluations of an active substance ever.”
The research continues
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), an EU agency based in Helsinki, has launched a deeper investigation into glyphosate, the results of which should be available in 2017.
Even if the European Commission decides to renew the chemical’s authorisation, it could still overturn its decision if ECHA brings to light new evidence of a potential risk to human health.
MEPs have demanded that the EFSA publish the sources for its first evaluation, which concluded that glyphosate posed no health risk. But the 13 April resolution is not binding, and the Commission is not obliged to take it into account.
The French Socialist Party said in a statement, « for more than 30 years, Monsanto has been poisoning the planet with this herbicide (…). Declared “probably carcinogenic” by the WHO in March 2015, glyphosate is still the most widely-sold herbicide in the world. (…) A large part of our food chain is contaminated.”
ECPA, the European Crop Protection Association, said in a statement, “We hope that member states and the European Commission will hear the clear message from members of the European Parliament – the representatives of European citizens – the 90,000 pages of evidence, and 3,300 peer-reviewed studies, confirming that glyphosate should be re-approved.”
Kateřina Konečná, a Czech MEP in the radical left GUE/NGL group, said, “I am really disappointed by the outcome of today’s vote on our objection to the re-authorisation of the glyphosate herbicide. Our objection has been distorted. Some really bad amendments were tabled by right-wing groups in order to weaken a ban on glyphosate in the resolution and, unfortunately, they were approved.”
The Glyphosate Task Force, which represents glyphosate manufacturers including Monsanto, said it considers that constructive dialogue about issues related to glyphosate is welcomed when done in a context that is based on facts and an acceptance of the procedures and process required by the legislation. Recent scare-mongering and promotion of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims has hampered the ability to have an informed debate, which has led to a loss of perspective by some groups, including why farmers use these products. Weeds, like insects and fungi, are pests that farmers must control. Glyphosate is a key tool for the control of weeds and the protection of crop yields.
"The unintended consequence of a politicised debate on glyphosate is a loss of perspective,” said Richard Garnett, chairman of the GTF.
Angélique Delahaye, a French Republican MEP in the EPP group, said “I have tabled amendments to regulate the use of [glyphosate] in order to effectively address the concerns raised. It is important not only to train professionals, via for example a certificate of use, but especially to strictly or even prohibit, the sale to non-professionals." But beyond these proposals, she said "we must also and especially support research and innovation to find viable alternatives for farmers."
Delahaye also denounced the attitude of left-wing parties in Parliament, suggesting their opposition to glyphosate was politically motivated. "This principled opposition [...], led by the left and the extremes in the European Parliament, prevents us from considering concrete solutions," she regretted.
Julie Girling, a British Conservative MEP and the ECR group’s environment co-ordinator said: “EFSA has the role of providing scientific evidence for the regulation of agricultural technologies and to question its advice on an issue so central to the UK and European agriculture sector sets a worrying precedent.
“The precautionary principle in EU law is to take care of cases where there is not any scientific advice. There is a plethora of scientific advice here. We have to choose between our own EFA advice and IARC, and I see no reason to move away from EFA.
“We believe the focus should instead be on risks posed by co-formulants and Conservative MEPs will push the Commission to come forward with a separate act this summer listing substances to be excluded from use in products containing glyphosate. »
Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg said: “MEPs are right to call for tough restrictions of glyphosate use, but these are not sufficient to protect people and the environment. The science shows that glyphosate is a threat for public health and must be banned outright. A ban in cities and gardens would not prevent large-scale contamination of food, water, soil and air.”
The Secretary-General of Copa and Cogeca, the European farmers' and agri-cooperatives, Pekka Pesonen, said, "Chemical control is a prerequisite for some farming practices such as no-till and minimum-tillage, helping to ensure less greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world. Not approving this active substance would therefore just be to the advantage of non-EU countries that export to the EU, as it would still be part of the farmer's tool box in these countries.”
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”.
- European Parliament: Glyphosate: authorise for just seven years and professional uses only, urge MEPs
- Monsanto: Press release