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Glyphosate’s EU Saga

Thursday, 14 December, 2017 - 13:37

The two-year stalemate surrounding the extension of glyphosate’s EU licence finally came to an end with the EU Commission adopting the renewal of the herbicide’s market approval for another five years. With EU states deeply divided on the issue, and the public having been energized by a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) to ban the herbicide, it was clear the debate would leave its mark on the EU. Evidence of this is found in the Commission’s own reaction to the ECI, which, on December 12th, announced that it would put into place mechanisms designed to increase the transparency and quality of studies used in scientific assessments.

Brussels is making a valid point. After all, it was a deeply flawed and widely discredited study that dragged the glyphosate debate on for two years longer than it should have. Worse, the saga inadvertently put EU decision-making processes in an incredibly poor light. The highly emotional and contradictory debate revolving around long-discredited claims that glyphosate is a potential human carcinogenic, has severely reduced confidence in the EU’s institutions and confirmed criticism about their inefficiency.

Unfortunately, it is undeniable that an inexcusable amount of time was wasted debating the findings of a study that concluded glyphosate might cause cancer in humans. Said study was published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and notably remains the only assessment of the herbicide to have ever reached such a verdict. The overwhelming majority of experts from respected institutions like the European Food Safety Authority, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the European Chemicals Agency, all called IARC into question when their own evaluations found glyphosate to pose no threat to human health.

The scientific counter-evidence should have been enough to dispel all doubt about glyphosate’s non- carcinogenicity. But if that were not enough, scepticism about the contents of IARC’s study were lifted beyond the realm of academic debate when the methodology behind the monograph was proven to be shamefully flawed and in blatant violation of scientific methods.  An investigation conducted by Reuters revealed that the IARC scientist who led the team working on the paper removed evidence showing that glyphosate does not cause cancer in humans. The justification was more than spurious: “to make the paper a more manageable size.”

Even after the findings of the IARC report were exposed as junk science, some EU member states continued to raise fears over the supposed dangers of glyphosate – even in the absence of reliable evidence on which to base these concerns. Throughout the ordeal, it became clear that some member states were more concerned with appeasing environmental campaigners, like the ECI, than they were about the integrity of science.

Still, no matter the machinations of the anti-glyphosate lobby, the final outcome of the lengthy quarrelling is, on balance, positive. It means that farmers can continue to use glyphosate, saving them from the costly and environmentally-damaging process of switching to alternative herbicides. However, the emotional ferocity displayed as the issue was fought out in the public sphere, showed a side of the EU far removed from the technocratic machine it is often portrayed to be. If it were, the decision would have likely been reached quicker and less controversially. After all, the European Union is an institution originally designed to remove emotion out of policy-making – a lesson learned from the continent’s own violently nationalistic and explosive past.

Arguing in November that glyphosate’s European licence should have been extended for 15 years based on the available evidence, Secretary General of EU farmers’ union Copa-Cogeca, Pekka Pesonen, quite rightly observed that decisions such as these “should not be based on politics or emotions.” The underlying message was that confidence in EU decision-makers is severely damaged by the chaotic way in which the issue was allowed to play out. At a time when the European population’s confidence in the EU is already in a significant crisis, such warnings should be heeded in the halls of the European Commission.

The problem is that some EU member states still continue to rustle feathers instead of letting the issue rest and focus on other pressing things. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, lost no time instructing his advisers to find an alternative to glyphosate within the next three years. By doing so, he is essentially undermining the hard-fought consensus and is robbing EU institutions of their credibility.

However, while Macron sought to create the biggest media echo possible, he will likely face stiff resistance from France’s outspoken farmers, who did not take kindly to the President’s announcement. The country’s crop growers believe that banning glyphosate will reduce their global competitiveness and increase costs. As such, they are in a similar position to farmers in California, where glyphosate was placed on the state’s Proposition 65 list requiring companies selling the herbicide to put warning labels on the packaging. Various farmers’ associations across the US have sued California for this legislation, and French farmers could be inspired to sue their own government to maintain access to glyphosate.

Still, a storm is still brewing in the meanwhile. Besides the fact that the whole process will need to be repeated in just half a decade, Germany’s decision to vote in favour of the extension has already provoked a political backlash against Berlin – both from countries such as France and Italy which had wanted to ban the substance, and from pro-green campaigners at home.

EU members states managed to arrive at an uncomfortable consensus on glyphosate just weeks before its current licence is due to expire on 15 December. But the difficult drawn-out process of doing so has only reinforced perceptions that the 28-nation bloc’s decision-making processes are simply to complicated and unwieldy to produce policy in an efficient manner.

The fact that hard science won in the end shows that not only common sense prevailed, but that the EU is capable of reaching the most appropriate verdicts in some situations, regardless of the noise around it.


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