European officials delay decision on glyphosate – again

June 25, 2016 by Staff Reporter

Update: On 29 June 2016 EU officials voted to keep glyphosate on the market for another 18 months. See our update here.


Yesterday, while Europe’s – and possibly the world’s – attention was focused on whether Britain would remain in the EU, another vote, with widespread implications for our health and environment, took place

Once again, European officials, via the EU Appeals Committee – comprised of representatives from the Member States and chaired by the European Commission – have tried to vote on a proposal to extend license for the widely used herbicide.

Once again they have failed to reach a qualified majority. This time around, France and Malta voted against the re-approval while seven other countries including Germany, Italy, Portugal, Austria, Luxembourg, Greece and Bulgaria abstained.

This failure to reach a firm decision on this widely used herbicide – which is instrumental to current GM crops –  is one of many over the last couple years.

The glyphosate saga

The background to the glyphosate saga is a frustrating one. The original ten-year license expired in June 2012. But the Commission has twice – in 2011 and again in 2015 – granted temporary extensions.

In March 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a report, based on publicly available science, which classified glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen”.

Industry, unsurprisingly, balked at this conclusion and in November 2015, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), relying largely on industry-funded data, much of which is not available for public scrutiny, reached the opposite conclusion paving the way for the controversial herbicide to be given a new license.

In response to the EFSA report, 96 leading scientists called on the EU’s health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, to disregard the EFSA assessment because it was simply “not credible”.

A year later in March 2016, Italy, France, Sweden and the Netherlands joined together in opposition to a proposed vote on relicensing glyphosate for another 15 years. Under the weight of this opposition, the vote, which was due to be taken by the EU’s Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food, had to be postponed.

A month after that European Parliament, adopted a resolution calling on the Commission to severely restrict permitted uses of the toxic herbicide glyphosate, including all private uses, the spraying of glyphosate in public parks and playgrounds, as well as an effective ban on pre-harvest desiccation of crops. It also called for the full and immediate disclosure of all scientific evidence used by the European Food Safety Authority to back up its claim that glyphosate is unlikely to cause harm.

The resolution, which was very much in response to citizen concerns, was not binding. But coming from the EU’s only elected body directly representing EU citizens, it carried significant moral weight and pushed the discussion of glyphosate safety into a more positive direction.

Strong opposition, multiple delays

In May 2016, the EU Commission again postponed a vote on the renewal of glyphosate in the Standing Committee, when it became clear that there was not enough support from member countries to pass the measure. Representatives from the EU’s 28 nations had been due to vote on a proposal to extend the herbicide’s license for a further 9 years.

A strong collation between France and Germany, however, opposed the relicensing. Without the support of those two countries, the Commission had no hope of the necessary majority to push the license through.

Then again, on June 6, 2016, the European Commission failed to secure sufficient support from EU governments for its proposal to extend a license for glyphosate by up to 18 months.

Next steps for the EU

The European Commission now has until the end of June to decide if the toxic weedkiller will be granted a license.

In the meantime The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is still conducting its investigation into the wider human health effects of glyphosate. The results of this will be published by the end of 2017.

Should ECHA find that glyphosate can cause cancer or damage the endocrine system then, according to EU law, it can no longer be sold.

The most likely outcome at the moment is that the Commission is likely to grant a temporary extension of the license for 12-18 months, while the ECHA finishes its report.

In the unlikely event that the license is not extended before July 1st, when the current license runs out, manufacturers will have six months to phase out products containing glyphosate.

Given that a temporary license is almost certain to be granted next week, many are calling on the EU to use the time wisely to prepare an ‘exit strategy’ for taking glyphosate off the market.

Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg, for instance, has said: “The Commission is about to give glyphosate an unreasonable grace period, which will continue to leave people and nature exposed to the controversial weedkiller. It should use this time to draw up a glyphosate exit plan. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in Europe and has been linked to serious health concerns and loss of wildlife. It’s time for Europe to plan for a glyphosate-free future.”

We couldn’t agree more.

EU must follow the science

Some 9.4m tonnes of glyphosate have been applied to crops since 1974, enough to spray half a pound of Roundup onto every cultivated acre of land on the planet. This saturation of our crops and soil has taken place on little more than a presumption of safety.

Environmentalists, some politicians and the public, however, are increasingly and strongly voicing the opinion that presumption is not enough. Proof is what matters and, as the proof that glyphosate is highly toxic has emerged, the public has shown it is firmly behind a taking glyphosate off the market.

An Avaaz petition calling on EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, amongst others in the international community, to pay attention to the science and “exercise the precautionary principle and immediately suspend approval of glyphosate, present in herbicides like Monsanto’s RoundUp”, now has more than 2 million signatories.

The questions is, will the European authorities follow the science – or will they follow the money?