Brussels, 26th October 2017
Current developments on the possible re-authorisation of glyphosate reveal just how controversial the issue has become. An intrinsically rather technical and scientific issue, it has now passed into the hands of politicians and policymakers, as millions of citizens across Europe have been voicing concerns not only about their health being at stake but also about EU institutions’ risk assessment procedures not appearing to be geared in the interest of consumer protection.
Previous scepticism around placing faith in EU public risk assessment bodies has now expanded even further due to recent developments such as the Monsanto Papers and the news of the BfR and EFSA having copy/pasted industry texts into their own risk assessment conclusions of the same substances that industry manufactures. There is also growing concern around the contamination of environmental ecosystems by the use of glyphosate, as more relevant data emerge (see recent study on unprecedented levels of glyphosate in EU topsoil).
At Tuesday’s European Parliament plenary in Strasbourg (24th October), a majority of MEPs voted in favour of the motion for resolution demanding a ban on glyphosate without exemptions by 2022 (meaning a five-year period to transition away from dependency on the herbicide). The resolution also imposes a ban on the use of glyphosate as a desiccant in pre-harvest from 16th December 2017 onwards, and calls both the European Commission and Member States not to approve non-professional uses or use close to public spaces such as parks and playgrounds.
While the Parliament’s vote echoes the voices of civil society organisations and concerned consumer associations calling for a radical change in the overall EU agricultural policy by transitioning away from dependency on agrichemicals, the Commission’s position is less clear. Having put the proposal for a 10-year unrestricted renewal on the table, it would seem deaf and blind to the plea for transparency and consumer protection coming from EU citizens. The astonishing result of the EP’s plenary vote reflects what Europeans actually want; in fact, a recent poll conducted by SumOfUs and WeMove shows that on average 80% of French, Germans, Italians, Portuguese and Greeks are against glyphosate and support an immediate ban.
Under the current circumstances, it has been very hard for the Commission to table a proposal that would guarantee a qualified majority of Member States to vote in favour, however were it not able to secure a QMV before the 15th of December 2017, the Commission would be facing substantial court cases from Monsanto and other glyphosate manufacturing companies for failure to act.
In fact, at Wednesday’s meeting between Member States and the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed, it was not possible to reach a qualified majority on the Commission’s proposal for a 10-year renewal of glyphosate with no restrictions of use. Although the proposal was supported by 16 EU Member States (namely Bulgaria, Denmark, Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Spain, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Finland and the U.K.) it was also rejected by 10 MS (Belgium, Greece, Croatia, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Austria, Slovenia and Sweden), while Germany and Portugal abstained.
As such, no vote was taken at the meeting, although the Commission did test the waters by trying to negotiate a shorter renewal period, first of 5 years, then of 3; again, this failed to garner a qualified majority, which will unlikely be reached until and unless an agreement /compromise can be found among Member States.
All eyes and ears are now focused on when the next vote will be scheduled (insider hearsay indicates this may occur either on November 5th/6th or 21st/22nd), with NGOs continuing to push for an immediate and total ban (or a progressive phase-out with restrictions) on one hand, and industry pushing for re-approval for a 15-year period without restrictions on the other (hand).
At the heart of the dichotomy between the two sides is the debate on whether a phase-out would actually be feasible: while industry claims that pesticides are indispensable and that a ban on glyphosate would be enormously detrimental to the EU agri-food sector by making farmers dependent on even more toxic and costly substances, on the other side independent scientists, farmer associations and civil society groups claim not only that alternatives exist, but also that they are already being put into practice in different parts of Europe (to this purpose, see PAN-E’s latest report “Alternative Methods in Weed Management to the Use of Glyphosate and Other Herbicides”).
What is notable is that the glyphosate issue used to be quite obscure to most, whereas in just a couple of years, especially since the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” to humans, awareness and concern over the issue has greatly increased. As a result, more Member States are calling for its removal from the market in view of a phase-out, aimed at adopting more sustainable methods for weed control and pest management that don’t put human health and the environment at any risk. This newfound awareness around glyphosate is compounded by the sheer speed at which the #StopGlyphosate European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) fulfilled the requirements to be officially deemed successful: having reached a million signatures in only six months from its launch, it is now the fastest-growing ECI ever.
In conclusion, while the final decision on whether glyphosate will be reauthorized or not is still pending, over the years massive improvements have been made in terms of redressing the dialogue toward institutional and procedural transparency, the definition of “sound” science and farmers’ and consumers’ health and choice. Only a few years ago, when the license for glyphosate had expired in 2015, re-proposing a standard 15-year license renewal seemed, in fact, “standard” procedure; but ever since the IARC classification of the same year, and after the following developments which have culminated in these days, it would seem increasingly evident that “business as usual” will not do anymore – not in the case of glyphosate, at least. European regulators are learning at a high cost what neglecting consumer concerns and conducting opaque risk assessments entails, and have now reached the point where they simply cannot afford to avoid listening.
Just how exactly they plan to go about doing this remains to be seen…