By Angela Dimas
Speaking in Brussels last week, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis announced the EU will refuse to reauthorize the use of the herbicide glyphosate for another decade unless it has sufficient support from the Union’s 28 member states. Addressing reporters after a meeting of EU agriculture ministers, Andriukaitis said the European Commission will not extend its approval of the compound without the backing of a “qualified majority of member states.”
The decision raised eyebrows among proponents of the herbicide, a key active ingredient in pesticides widely used in the farming industry. After all, a European Chemical Agency (ECHA) report released just a few months ago concluded it should not be classified as a carcinogenic substance. But with EU member states consistently failing to produce a majority opinion on the continued use of glyphosate, the Commission’s decision to seek a qualified consensus on the matter effectively hands a veto to Germany and France.
Both countries have so far abstained from voting on the issue since the compound’s EU licence expired last year. This makes it highly likely that the Brussels battle over the reauthorization of glyphosate will remain on ice until this September’s election in Germany, where extending the approval of the herbicide has become a tense political issue for the increasingly brittle coalition government.
German public opinion, heavily influenced by environmental campaigners and green politicians, is vehemently opposed to the continued use of products containing glyphosate. They point to the disputed findings of an International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report that labelled the substance a probable cause of cancer. With Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union potentially having to rely on support from Germany’s Green Party in order to form a government, Berlin will almost certainly wait until after the votes are in to take a position.
In France, independent-minded environment minister Nicolas Hulot has voiced strong doubts over the reauthorization of glyphosate, arguing that safer alternatives to the compound should be explored. This position has put Hulot on a collision course with the rest of the French government. Those tensions underscored the “Estates-General of Nutrition”, an assembly dreamed up by Hulot which is currently meeting to improve the lives of farmers and help the country’s agricultural sector better respond to consumer demand. It is widely believed that an EU ban on glyphosate would cost farmers dearly: a recent UK survey revealed that the majority of British farmers fear a failure to reauthorize the substance would force them to turn to more expensive forms of pest control, costing each of them more than €11,000 every year.
The irony of the glyphosate fight is that, following a string of revelations that have discredited the findings of the IARC study, continued opposition to reauthorization is almost entirely political. The overwhelming majority of scientific evidence has proven the herbicide is safe. Regulatory bodies in both the European Union and the rest of the world frequently test glyphosate, and have consistently found it not to be carcinogenic. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Chemicals Agency, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the US Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency have all concluded that the compound poses no risk to human health, contrary to the claims of campaigners who would like to see it banned.
In January, EFSA chief Bernhard Url said the debate around the toxicity of pesticides has been hijacked by environmentalists who object to intensive farming methods. The IARC report in question – the one concluding glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic” – faced even more heated criticism from experts on both sides of the Atlantic after Reuters discovered that the panel responsible for its contents had failed to consider key evidence. Reporting on the cancer research body’s deliberations, the news agency uncovered last month that an American scientist central to the proceedings had neglected to inform his colleagues of an extensive Agricultural Health Study (AHS) – a study the scientist himself had worked on – whose findings thoroughly contradicted any supposed cancer link.
Despite those revelations, the anti-glyphosate campaign continues. The environmentalists who would like to see glyphosate banned may not have science on their side, but they have brought a considerable amount of pressure to bear on EU policymakers. Andriukaitis himself has said that politics should not be allowed to “outweigh broadly-agreed scientific opinions.” Inadvertently, though, his comments make the European Commission’s decision to seek a member state consensus on the reauthorization of glyphosate look somewhat cowardly. Banning the compound could potentially threaten the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and cause food prices to rise across Europe. Failing to extend its use could also damage the environment, forcing the agricultural sector to resort to more carbon-intensive methods of pest control.
Andriukaitis’ comments indicate the Commission is in favour of extending the licence of glyphosate for another 10 years. But it remains to be seen whether EU member states will be able to face down green campaigners. EU leaders, particularly those at the head of governments of France and Germany, must be careful not to allow unfounded objections to influence their decision-making. Allowing anti-glyphosate campaigners to distort the nature the issue could have grave consequences for European farmers and consumers alike.