Glyphosate re-authorised in the EU for another 5 years: a bittersweet outcome

Brussels, November 28th 2017

On Monday 27th of November, one and a half years after the authorization of glyphosate - the active substance of the world’s most-used herbicide - was first presented to Member States for renewal at the Standing Committee of Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (SCoPAFF), the final decision over its re-authorisation in the EU was taken. The original proposal for a 15-year renewal had previously been reduced gradually to 5 years, but without achieving a qualified majority to vote in favour. Hence, the proposal was taken at a higher level. At the appeal committee of EU governments, a qualified majority of Member States finally voted in favour of the European Commission's proposal to renew the glyphosate authorisation for 5 years.

In order for a proposal to be adopted, it must gain a Qualified Majority Vote (QMV) from at least 16 Member States whose aggregate population counts for more than 65% of the total EU population. In the case of glyphosate 18 Member States (Bulgaria, Germany, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Spain, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, United Kingdom) voted in favour of the proposal, while 9 MS (Belgium, Greece, France, Croatia, Italy, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Austria) voted against, and Portugal abstained. As the 18 MS who voted in favour represent 65,71%, the proposal was successfully adopted.

In previous meetings (on October 5th and 25th and November 9th), the Commission and Member States had been deadlocked in a struggle to reach an agreement over proposals for a 10-year and finally a 5-year re-authorisation. Some countries opposed the Commission’s proposals, but for different reasons. For example, the UK wanted unrestricted reauthorisation for 15-years, while France spearheaded the ‘phase-out’ movement demanding a 3-year reauthorisation with restrictions.

In the appeal committee 3 Member States that had previously abstained (Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania) because they considered the renewal period too short, changed their position in yesterday’s vote and voted in favour. Furthermore, a swift change of position from Germany made it possible to overcome the impasse of not managing to gain a QMV. While internal issues in forming a government had previously forced Germany to abstain, it would seem that the return of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in government allowed for the country’s “U-turn”, voting in favour of the Commission’s proposal. However, this apparently happened without the consensus from the German ministry of environment: Germany’s Social Democrat Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks clearly stated that the decision was taken without her agreement. 

While this is a major improvement compared to a standard 15-year, unrestricted renewal, the vote’s outcome does not however acknowledge concerns over the product’s carcinogenicity, it ignores respect for the precautionary principle, and it does not hint at the possibility of a ban in the future, let alone at that of applying immediate restrictions on certain “unnecessary” uses (i.e. use in public areas such as streets, schools, parks, etc.). Indeed, this is what the European Parliament had called for in a (non-binding) resolution on October 24th.

Nonetheless, Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis was quick to congratulate himself on Twitter for Monday’s achievement, and to declare the outcome “a victory” in a Politico interview he gave just after the vote.

EU citizens and civil society, however, cannot help but to feel disappointed by their Institutions, who have not only proven oblivious to their demands, but have also belittled their concerns over the herbicide’s adverse health effects, as well as ironically belittling the (Commission-created) European Citizens’ Initiative itself as a tool of democratic participation. Despite over a million European citizens asking to ban glyphosate through the ECI, public opinion polls showing a vast majority of the European public supported a glyphosate ban, and the European Parliament proposing to phase-out its use in agriculture by 2022 (and place immediate bans for certain uses that result in higher risk), 18 Member States voted the Commission’s proposal to keep this pesticide in the market for another 5 years without restrictions.

Following the concerns raised by scientists and the general public, some additional elements were included in the previous proposal, that are anyways part of the EU Directive on Sustainable Use of Pesticides 2009/128/EC. These are:

“Member States shall pay particular attention to:

— the protection of the groundwater in vulnerable areas, in particular with respect to non-crop uses;

— the protection of operators;

— the risk to terrestrial vertebrates and non-target terrestrial plants;

— compliance of pre-harvest uses with good agricultural practices”.

A last-minute additional “positive” element was revealed, after the Commission’s proposal that was voted in the appeal committee was published, stating that:

“Member States shall pay particular attention to:

(…) — the protection of operators and amateur users;

(…)— the risk to diversity and abundance of non-target terrestrial arthropods and vertebrates via trophic interactions”;

Sadly, there are no EU bodies or institutions to effectively monitor that these indications to “pay particular attention” are correctly implemented in Member States, and to apply sanctions where and when they have not been. As such, this attempt at a “sugar coating” of the reauthorisation proposal has not been hailed as a “victory” by civil society organisations.

The outcome of the glyphosate saga clearly indicates that the current Commission’s priority does not lie with the protection of people’s health and of the environment, but with promoting a “business as usual” model to avoid corporate lawsuits by implementing a solution that angers the least number of stakeholders involved. It seems the EU has missed a great chance to spearhead the global transition toward a more sustainable agricultural model. Instead of confronting the issue in a progressive way, laying down healthy foundations for a phase-out by introducing immediate restrictions, it has simply relayed the crux of the decision to the next Commission, which will be faced with the same issue (if not worse!) in five years’ time.  

PAN Europe’s Environmental Toxicologist, Angeliki Lysimachou stated: "Although this might seem an improvement compared to the original proposal for a 15-year renewal, it does not address the concerns of European citizens and provides no guarantee that the general public and the environment will be protected from the harmful effects of this chemical. This decision reveals once again the sad truth that governments are more keen on protecting the highly profitable pesticide industry than the health of their people and the environment".