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Glyphosate under pressure

Glyphosate – the active ingredient of the ubiquitous Roundup herbicide – is under pressure. It has for a long time been regarded as perhaps the most benign and least toxic of weedkillers, although that hasn’t stopped constant attacks on its use from green groups such as the Pesticide Action Network. But now, the pressure is really on.

It started with a reclassification of the chemical as ‘probably carcinogen to human’ by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a subsidiary body of the World Health Authority. This in turn has catalysed a range of reactions from different countries. In particular, this reclassification has come at a time when the EU approval for glyphosate has to be renewed. Normally, this would be for a period of 15 years but, this time around, the Parliament called for this to be reduced to seven years and the Commission was believed to favour a compromise of nine years.

In reality, agreement between the member states has not been possible and we are now faced with just two options: one bad, the other very bad. In the first case, the Commission is proposing a temporary renewal, for just one or two years, to allow the completion of a new safety assessment by the European Chemicals Agency. The second option is that no agreement is reached, in which case the approval for glyphosate lapses at the end of June and it will have to be withdrawn from the EU market after a six-month grace period.

The consequences of glyphosate’s removal from the market could be far-reaching. The main reason it is so ubiquitous is that it is absorbed through leaves and directly targets a key enzyme common to the metabolism of all higher plants. It therefore kills the whole plant, not just the green leaves, and is effective against most species. The fact that it binds to a specific plant enzyme also means that it has little impact on animal life. Its loss would make weed control much harder and probably result in the use of less environmentally benign herbicides.

In a nice illustration of the murkiness of EU political decision making, the so-called Rapporteur Member State, responsible for the progress of the safety assessment, is Germany, and it is Germany that could upset the whole apple cart by abstaining in the key vote on reapproval, meaning there would be no qualified majority for approval.

This is highly likely, since Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks has stated categorically that she would not back reapproval. To add weight to this, her fellow ministers from the SDP, the junior coalition party, have adopted the same position. Chancellor Merkel cannot afford to split the coalition government, particularly at a time when her open door stance on migration has seen her popularity drop.

Without changes in the voting intentions of other member states, Germany’s position makes it certain that there would be no qualified majority for approval, which leaves the farming industry staring into the abyss. Given the intricacies of EU decision making, it is possible that this issue could go to appeal and that the decision would be referred back to the Commission itself, although this would hardly be a comfortable situation. It looks like farmers (as well as home gardeners) have to prepare themselves for a glyphosate-free 2017.

Politics aside, it is interesting to look at other aspects of the current fiasco. In particular, the IARC appears to have a remit to classify materials by their potential carcinogenicity rather than by the likely risk they pose; a hazard-based approach that, despite its flaws, has now been adopted by the EU when assessing pesticides. The IARC has put glyphosate into category 2 – likely to be a human carcinogen – along with malaria, deep frying, red meat and shift work. Sunlight and alcohol are category 1, definite carcinogens.

In other words, we are exposed to comparable and worse hazards every day of our lives. As the eminent toxicologist Bruce Ames said, “A cup of coffee is filled with chemicals. They've identified a thousand chemicals in a cup of coffee. But we only found 22 that have been tested in animal cancer tests out of this thousand. And of those, 17 are carcinogens. There are ten milligrams of known carcinogens in a cup of coffee and that’s more carcinogens than you’re likely to get from pesticide residues for a year!”

The problem is that, once the possibility of hazard has been put into the public domain, particularly when associated with a prestigious organisation such as the WHO, no amount of hard evidence or rational argument will be enough to erase the doubt in people’s minds. In highly precautionary Europe, many politicians are reluctant to vote on the basis of independent scientific advice.

In fact, since the crucial IACR statement, the WHO has stated that there was no safety issue with glyphosate in normal use, and the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has also advised informally that there is no substantive safety issue. No matter, the IACR statement is enough to keep the anti-pesticides lobby in top gear and tip the balance. Not only has the SDP pressure in Germany guaranteed the government’s abstention, but the French Health Minister has emphatically ruled out her government’s support for glyphosate.

The real issue here is not why Germany in particular has changed its stance on this issue, but why so many member states had already established their automatic negative position. There is, of course, a balance to be struck between public safety, environmental impact and the efficiency of the food chain. But there is no evidence that the new hazard-based approvals system for pesticides or the likely withdrawal of glyphosate will make any practical difference to public and environmental health.

Instead, we see the influence of anti-pesticide campaigners and sections of the environmental movement more generally ratcheting up. With neo-nicotenoids effectively banned, glyphosate’s removal from the market would be a much greater prize for them and there would be enormous pressure against a reapproval of a crop protection product once it has been temporarily taken off the market.

This is a crucial time for European farming. Anyone interested in evidence-based policymaking should be speaking up for science.