EU glyphosate tantrum could leave people exposed to cancer risk

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Monsanto's Roundup is the earliest formulation of glyphosate. [Greenpeace EU]

It is time for the European Commission to stop mucking about and act responsibly on glyphosate. If it grants a temporary extension it must include restrictions that minimise human exposure, writes Franziska Achterberg.

Franziska Achterberg is food policy director at Greenpeace EU.

Twice the Commission has cancelled an EU vote at the last minute, after failing to gather sufficient support from EU governments to re-licence glyphosate – a herbicide which scientists say is a probable cause of cancer. Now – much like a child threatening to hold its breath until it goes blue in the face, it says it could let the glyphosate licence expire at the end of June, without holding a vote.

This is unless EU countries agree to an extension of the existing licence until after the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has reported on the dangers of glyphosate. It is likely to do this at the end of 2017.

The executive has given EU governments until Wednesday (25 May) to report back. It is hoping to woo the likes of Germany or the Netherlands, which have so far refused to endorse its plans to re-licence glyphosate.

The crucial issue is whether the European Commission will continue to ignore the concerns of scientists, the European Parliament and citizens by allowing continued use of glyphosate, without strict restrictions to minimise human exposure.

This would be the third time the Commission has asked EU countries to back an extension of the glyphosate licence – the current licence has already been stretched to 14 instead of the ten years set under EU pesticides law.

Unfinished business

The executive justifies its approach on glyphosate by pointing to the findings of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The EFSA assessment was essentially a whitewash, contradicting the findings of the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency – the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

EFSA has since come under fire from independent scientists. It has also been criticised for basing its assessment on unpublished industry-funded studies. And yet, even EFSA could not rule out dangers to our health. It said “a firm conclusion cannot be reached” on potentially harmful effects on the human hormone system.

As a result, the European Commission asked glyphosate producers to submit studies by 1 August 2016 to prove that the herbicide is not an endocrine disruptor. Like carcinogens, endocrine disruptors are banned under EU pesticide law, although the EU is dragging its feet to agree scientific criteria to identify them.

The IARC’s warning should be sufficient for the Commission to apply strict EU-wide restrictions on the uses of glyphosate to minimise human exposure. The missing data on hormone disruption, the absence of an ECHA assessment, and evidence of environmental impacts make the case for tough restrictions impossible to ignore.

The sensible way out of the impasse is to give scientists an opportunity to resolve their differences, while protecting the public from harm. The Commission should immediately restrict glyphosate uses by banning:

  • Amateur use in gardens and homes, where users are less likely to wear protective equipment;
  • use in public parks, roadways and railways, which entail a high risk of exposure of the public and workers; and
  • spraying food crops before harvesting, which leaves high levels of residues.

It is time for the Commission to act responsibly on glyphosate. If it grants a temporary extension, it must include restrictions that minimise human exposure. But any final decision affecting millions of people should be based on fully transparent and independent science.