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European countries re-approved weed-killer glyphosate for another five years, in a last-chance meeting less than three weeks before its current licence expired.

In a surprise move, four EU member states changed their vote to approve the popular but controversial pesticide in a meeting of the Committee for Plants, Animals, Food and Feed Health on Monday. All four countries had abstained from the November 9 vote, which blocked any decision.

National experts from member countries and politicians have struggled to balance strong public opinion in favour of banning the chemical against farmers’ desire to continue to use the common herbicide.

“Glyphosate damages nature, probably causes cancer, and props up an industrial farming system that is degrading the land we need to feed ourselves,” said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth Europe. “Five more years of glyphosate will put our health and environment at risk, and is a major setback to more sustainable farming methods”.

Even with Monday’s approval, EU countries are still free to ban the chemical domestically.

“Although it is good news that a decision has been taken to end the uncertainty facing farmers and their cooperatives, we are worried that the EU has agreed to re-authorise glyphosate for 5 years instead of the full 15 years,” said Pekka Pesonen of EU farmers representatives Copa and Cogeca.”Without it, our food supplies will be put at risk as there are currently no alternatives on the market”.

On Monday there were 18 votes to approve, nine votes against and one abstention, according to EU sources. To pass, 55 per cent of the countries representing 65 per cent of the EU population need to vote yes.

Few expected the appeal committee to reach an agreement on Monday since too many counties had abstained in the past. A failure to reach a decision on Monday would have forced the the European college of commissioners to make the choice.

National governments have used abstentions to dodge making decisions on sensitive products such as genetically modified organisms at least 17 times in the past three years. The commission has proposed new rules to avoid this type of deadlock in the future.

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