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France plays both sides ahead of vote on critical herbicide

Monday, 18 September, 2017 - 12:40

It turns out that France is having second thoughts about its recent decision to vote against the reauthorization of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the most commonly used herbicide in the world. According to a EU diplomat, French officials have emailed several diplomatic services in Brussels in an effort to figure out what position they will take in the upcoming vote on the renewal of glyphosate. The development means that Paris is now wavering about its ultimate stance on the issue, hoping that if enough fellow member states vote yes, they can keep the appearance of having the moral high ground by voting no. “It’s a technical issue that was wrongly politicised […] agriculture should never be politicised,” the diplomat said.

The development comes as evidence of the herbicide’s safety keeps on mounting, as does news of the negative effects that would spill out from a ban. In spite of growing proof of the herbicide’s benign nature, however, France is trying to walk a tightrope by appeasing both green activists and the farmers who depend on glyphosate for their livelihoods. But this kind of two-faced charade can’t last long – which can only be a good thing, since no government should get away with taking its decisions in such an underhanded manner.

French officials’ behind-the-scenes thumb twiddling came as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued its most recent findings on glyphosate’s safety, concluding that the substance does not have endocrine disrupting properties earlier this month. Their conclusion came after the European Commission asked the agency to look into the question last year and was in line with the 2015 decision of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as other studies. EFSA’s finding was only the latest in a series of evaluations by national and international regulatory agencies, including the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the German BfR, as well as Canadian, Japanese, New Zealand, and Australian authorities, which have all concluded that glyphosate is safe.

In spite of all this overwhelming body of evidence, however, France announced its plans to vote against the renewal of glyphosate last month, adding to uncertainty over what agriculture and forest industry workers will use to replace an herbicide that they have relied on for more than 40 years. The Commission had already delayed a decision over the relicensing of glyphosate in 2016, when not only France but also Germany and Italy refused to approve the continued use of the chemical.

Explaining its most recent decision to turn down the reauthorization of glyphosate, French officials cited the decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to label the substance a “probable carcinogen” in March 2015. This, despite the fact that IARC’s finding directly contradicted the judgments by ECHA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), as well as other domestic and international bodies, that glyphosate does not harm human health.

France’s decision to vote against glyphosate renewal thus raises doubts about the extent to which activists have had an impact on the regulatory process. For instance, Christopher Portier, a specialist consulted during IARC’s review process who works for the Environmental Defense Fund, an American NGO, has since publicly questioned EFSA’s evaluation of glyphosate as safe – prompting the head of EFSA to denounce his campaign as “Facebook science.”

Not surprisingly, French farmers were “livid” at the news that their government had apparently given in to the activists. The nations’ main agricultural unions, including the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions (FNSEA), Young Farmers (JA), and Rural Coordination (CR) stated that a ban on glyphosate would put agroecology, agroforestry and conservation agriculture into jeopardy by raising operating costs and forcing them to return to time-intensive, expensive, out-dated methods. A recent study by the IPSOS Institute confirmed their fears, showing that a ban on glyphosate in the French market would result in losses of more than €2 billion.

The costs of appeasing the greens over the workers in the EU’s largest farming market are becoming increasingly apparent – which might explain Paris’ clandestine diplomacy. What would be best is if France dropped the charade, openly acknowledged the scientific consensus and their own farmers’ deep dependence on glyphosate, and voted accordingly.


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