Europe gives controversial pesticide glyphosate a five-year reprieve

Europe gives controversial pesticide glyphosate a five-year reprieve

Representatives of the European citizens’ initiative “Stop Glyphosate” call on the European institutions to ban this agrichemical.

(EC-Audiovisual Service/Jennifer Jacquemart)

“Glyphosate will be the final nail in Brussels’ coffin.” It was in such categorical terms that Czech MEP Kateřina Konečná spoke at the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, hours after the European Union approved the use of the chemical for another five years. It is the culmination of a battle pitting corporate interests and political manoeuvring against the health of European citizens.

Glyphosate is the most widely used weed killer in the world. It has been in use since the seventies and was approved for the first time at European level in 2002 (prior to which its authorisation was the responsibility of the individual member states). It is estimated that 747,000 tons of the product were used in 2014, mainly in agriculture, although it is also widely used in public gardens and by individuals. Its inventor and main manufacturer is the US multinational Monsanto, with its flagship product, Roundup, one of the mainstays of its global earnings.

The substance has been under scrutiny since the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a report in 2015 warning of its potentially carcinogenic effects on human beings.

In 2016, when the product’s European licence was approaching its expiry date, the Commission proposed its renewal, but member states were split over the decision, given the clash in the conclusions reached by the IARC and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which deemed it to be safe. The neutrality of the EFSA’s research was, however, called into question in an article published by The Guardian, in September of this year.

“Large sections of the EU report on the potential risk to human health and the environment were taken word for word from Monsanto’s application for the renewal of glyphosate’s licence,” Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU food policy director told Equal Times. She explains that EU scientists took whole passages in which the manufacturer referred to studies as being “unreliable” or “not likely to be relevant” and copied and pasted them into their report.

A similar controversy broke out in March in the United States, when a judge declassified emails of Monsanto executives suggesting that the multinational ghost wrote research on glyphosate that was subsequently attributed to independent scientists and that an official from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promised to prevent a review of the product by the US Department of Health.

In the absence of an agreement between EU member states, a decision was made to extend the licence until December 2017. In the meantime, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) was tasked with issuing a new verdict on the risks of glyphosate as a chemical substance.

In March 2017, the agency announced that the available scientific evidence did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen.

The European Commission subsequently resumed negotiations over its proposal to extend the licence for glyphosate by 10 years. In the meantime, a citizens’ initiative, backed by NGOs and other organisations, collected more than a million signatures in support of the call for an EU-wide ban on the product. In line with EU rules, the organisers of the initiative were able to meet with the Commission and to present their case in a public hearing at the European Parliament in November.

The MEPs had, in fact, already reached a verdict on glyphosate in October. Their non-binding resolution recommended that the product be phased out and totally banned by 2022. They also pointed to the need for the EU’s product authorisation procedure to be based exclusively on published, peer-reviewed and independent studies, commissioned by the competent authorities.

Germany’s shift in position

In spite of the Parliament’s recommendations, on 27 November, EU countries finally approved the renewal of glyphosate’s licence for another five years, thanks to a controversial last-minute shift in position by Germany. Its agriculture minister, Christian Schmidt, decided to go against the instructions of his own government to abstain and voted in favour of its renewal. Germany’s Social Democrats and Greens were outraged by the move, which further complicated the negotiations being held on the formation of a coalition government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, following the elections held in September. Meanwhile, Germany’s chemical and pharmaceutical giant Bayer announced plans to acquire Monsanto by early 2018.

The renewal came as a relief to the agricultural sector, which largely depends on the pesticide to maintain current costs and production levels. “We hope to be able, during these five years, to show that this product, as we have said so many times, is absolutely essential,” Ricardo Serra, president of the Spanish farmers’ association ASAJA Andalucía, told Equal Times, given that there is currently no alternative to the pesticide. “People don’t realise the impact it [being banned] could have, including for them personally, as it would mean a very significant rise in the cost of agricultural production,” he underlined.

According to Achterberg, “The massive use of pesticides in agriculture has given agribusiness companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer unprecedented power, trapping farmers in a very costly relationship.”

“Farmers use these products because they are essential and because the public, which is increasingly demanding, wants low prices and unpolluted products,” Serra explains. “It is impossible to have a totally unpolluted product that is not treated with anything at all, because there is no other way of controlling insects or weeds, and doing it by hand is not feasible, of course.”

The French MEP Karima Delli, who belongs to the Green group of the European Parliament, does not agree: “Glyphosate associated with intensive farming belongs to a model of the past, in that productivity at all costs is proving fatal to the farmers themselves. It is essential, at this stage, that we turn towards organic and low-input agriculture that respects the environment and consumers’ health. That’s the future, because that’s the key to [having] quality products.”

Bans in Europe and the United States

For Delli, the renewal of glyphosate’s licence “is a bad bet, because within five years we’ll be faced with the same problem again”. In fact, although the product’s use is permitted at EU level, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has already announced that France intends to ban it within three years at the most. Italy has set caps on its use that are 25 per cent lower than those established by the EU, and intends to withdraw it completely by 2020. In the United States, in June, California included it in its official list of carcinogenic products.

“Glyphosate is another example of unwarranted trust in supposedly benign chemical substances that turn out to be harmful,” Achterberg explains, referring to the example of DDT. “If we take the protection of our health and the environment seriously, we need a more radical change than simply replacing one chemical product with another.”

For now, European crops will continue to be sprayed with glyphosate for another five years.

This article has been translated from Spanish.