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Sometimes in EU affairs the way a decision is taken, or not, sheds more light on the way the bloc operates than the decision itself. Take the case of glyphosate, the world’s most widely-used weedkiller.
The EU licence for the pesticide runs out on 15 December, so European experts — representing each national government on Brussels’ standing committee on plants, animals, food and feed, or PAFF — have to decide whether the bloc’s farmers can continue to use the product. It should have been routine. Yet the process has been a two-year saga and it has been difficult to tell whether politicians are more concerned about the potential toxic effects of the product — or of the judgment they must reach.
European farmers are heavily reliant on the herbicide and want it approved for another 15 years. Renewal seemed straightforward after the European Food Safety Authority, an EU agency, concluded in 2015 that glyphosate is not unsafe — in line with the findings of other national agencies. However, that certainty was called into question the same year when the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
That finding prompted a further review by both EFSA and the European Chemicals Agency, another EU body, which reassessed evidence in light of the IARC’s finding. They again found no link to cancer. This has not satisfied campaigners, who are deeply suspicious of the chemical’s potential effect on health, the environment and biodiversity. They also worry that politicians and regulators might be influenced by the power of the agrichemical industry: Monsanto, the US group that discovered and patented glyphosate, earned most of its $3.7bn pesticides revenue last year from its glyphosate-based Roundup products.
The so-called Monsanto papers — internal company documents made public as part of US court cases — fed campaigners’ suspicions about the company’s influence on scientists and regulators. Meanwhile the industry has questioned the IARC’s methods and conclusions. All the regulatory agencies, and Monsanto, deny allegations of interference.
That public trust in scientific testing has waned is not surprising, given past scandals where supposedly safe products turned out to be harmful. Routine reassessments of product safety have become pressure points for interest groups to rally public opinion: more than 1m Europeans have signed a petition to ban glyphosate, reform approval procedures and cut pesticide use.
Farmers are worried. They say a glyphosate ban would raise costs, cut production and increase the need to till the soil, with deleterious environmental consequences.
European governments have been caught between public calls for a ban and vocal industry pressure to relicense. Paris has sought to balance its powerful farming lobby with strong public support for a ban. Berlin also faces a dilemma. Public opinion is hostile: around half of those petition signatures came from Germany. However one of Germany’s largest companies, Bayer, is buying Monsanto.
Since the summer PAFF’s experts have met every few weeks. Reapproval of glyphosate would need a vote by a qualified majority that represented most of the EU’s members and population — yet the committee has failed to agree a decision, even after a proposal to cut the licence period from 10 to five years. Perhaps most absurdly, the gridlock has occurred even though member states would be free to ban glyphosate domestically even if the bloc were to grant a new European license.
If, as expected, Monday’s last-chance vote also fails to reach a decision, the commission, which wants to change the rules to avoid future stand-offs, will be forced to decide on the renewal — with uncertain consequences. What does seem clear is that while such an outcome would provide a handy scapegoat for unhappy national politicians, it is unlikely to do much to reinforce public trust in the EU and national institutions.