Controversial glyphosate weedkiller wins new five-year lease in Europe

Glyphosate, the key ingredient in the world’s bestselling weedkiller, has won a new five-year lease in Europe, closing the most bitterly fought pesticide relicensing battle of recent times. The herbicide’s license had been due to run out in less than three weeks, raising the prospect of Monsanto’s Roundup disappearing from store shelves and, potentially, a farmers’ revolt. Instead, an EU appeal committee voted to reauthorise the substance despite a petition by 1.3 million EU citizens calling for a ban. In 2015, the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency, the IARC, famously declared glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans,” although several international agencies, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), subsequently came to opposite conclusions. Monsanto insists glyphosate is safe. The EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said: “Today’s vote shows that when we all want to, we are able to share and accept our collective responsibility in decision making.” However, the approval falls far short of the 15-year license the commission had originally sought and Conservative MEPs lashed out at what they called “an emotional, irrational but politically convenient fudge”. Ashley Fox, the Conservative party’s delegation leader in the European parliament, said that the vote “simply prolongs the uncertainty for our farmers, who are being badly let down. They cannot plan for the future without long term assurances about the availability of substances they rely on.” A re-run of the struggle to reauthorise glyphosate will now begin again in two years’ time, with a new safety assessment by EFSA. Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg commented: “The people who are supposed to protect us from dangerous pesticides have failed to do their jobs and betrayed the trust Europeans place in them.” The Green party called it “a dark day for consumers, farmers and the environment”. Chris Portier, an advisor to IARC in its glyphosate decision, told the Guardian that, in his view, the EU decision was scientifically unsound. “The guidelines maintained by ECHA [the European chemical agency] would easily classify this compound as a group 1B carcinogen and, as such, it should be banned for use in Europe,” he said. The row over glyphosate has raised questions over modern farming techniques, regulatory capture and scientific independence, as well as the safety of ubiquitous pesticides. Traces of glyphosate are routinely found in tests of foodstuffs, water, topsoil, and human urine in amounts way above safe limits set by regulators. Ben & Jerry’s recently introduced a new line of organic ice cream, in a bid to sate public concern. Campaigners say Monsanto ghost-wrote research papers for regulators, enlisted EPA officials to block a US government review of glyphosate and formed front groups to discredit critical scientists and journalists, citing documents revealed in a US lawsuit by non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma sufferers. More than 280 similar lawsuits are now pending against Monsanto, according to the US right to know campaign. But the enzyme blocking chemical has also become a mainstay of modern agricultural techniques that farmers’ unions see as environmentally friendly, even as critics condemn it as a “pesticide treadmill” of danger to plants, animals and people. Monsanto argues that, as a no-till system, glyphosate lowers carbon emissions and protects soil quality. The company declined to comment on the result, deferring to farmers’ groups. Guy Jenkins, vice-president of the National Farmers Union, said: “Today’s decision will be welcomed by farmers who have watched with growing concern as what should have been a straightforward decision has become increasingly political.” “Glyphosate reduces the need to use other herbicides, it helps to protect soil and cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need for ploughing, and it enables farmers in this country to grow crops that help produce safe, affordable, high-quality British food.”

The Guardian, 28 November 2017 ; http://www.guardian.com