Oliver Moore: Choppy waters up ahead for herbicide

Chemical formula of glyphosate, the focus of much debate.

The approvals process for the widely used but controversial herbicide glyphosate has hit another stumbling block en route to its possible re-authorisation in June.

Last week, the European Parliament recommended a severely restricted, reduced approval for glyphosate.

However — and against the Parliament’s Environment Committee — they fell short of actually calling for its withdrawal.

This was a non-binding vote; and there are two more institutional stages before June.

National experts sitting in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food, and Feed (Phytopharmaceuticals Section) will vote to adopt or reject the Commission proposal by qualified majority in May. If there is no such majority, the European Commission will decide.

Nevertheless, this resolution — which was passed by 374 votes to 225, with 102 abstentions – gives the other institutional legs a steer.

The key recommendations were:

* Seven year re-approval rather than the expected 15 years.

* No approval of non-professional use.

* No approval in or close to public parks/playground/gardens.

* No approval where integrated pest management systems are sufficient for the necessary weed control.

* Strictly limit on pre-harvest applications. MEPs condemned as “unacceptable” the use of glyphosate in “green burndown”, or desiccation. This is “the killing of the crop plant prior to harvest in order to accelerate ripening and facilitate harvesting.” 

This practice “leads inter alia to increased human exposure”.

* An independent review of the overall toxicity level of glyphosate.

* Call for the Commission and the European Food Safety Authority to immediately disclose all scientific evidence for the positive classification of glyphosate, given the overriding public interest in disclosure (ENVI para 5).

* Call on Commission to test and monitor glyphosate residues in foods and drinks produced in the EU, as well as in imported produce (ENVI para 6)

* Strong criticism of Commission accepting an incomplete dossier with regard to endocrine disruption.

This is the latest delay for an approvals process which was seen as — just a couple of years ago — a formality.

The context is one of an ongoing spat between scientific agencies (the EFSA and the World Health Organisations’ cancer agency, the IARC); it also comes against the backdrop of new studies on glyphosate toxicity.

We are also seeing a number of significant citizen science initiatives to show widespread glyphosate exposure (in beer, bread and most people’s urine); and we’re seeing what EU insiders consider to be some savvy manoeuvring by the Green group in the Parliament to create a broad alliance.

This debacle has the conventional farming lobby exasperated. After all, the EFSA — Europe’s competent authorities — found that glyphosate is “not a likely carcinogen”.

As reported in Examiner Farming on March 31, the IFA national grain committee is concerned that failure to approve glyphosate would “deliver a killer blow to the Irish and wider EU tillage sector”.

Copa and Cogeca secretary general, Pekka Pesonen, said: “A ban would be disastrous for the EU... given the current agricultural crisis and the need to meet increasing world food demand.” 

They pointed to the environmental benefits of the herbicide for soil and for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They also said EU competitiveness would be at a disadvantage, if the rest of the world could continue to use glyphosate and Europe not.

Copa called on “the EU Commission to prolong the authorization for a further 15 years... without it, production would be jeopardized”. 

This argument has been challenged at EU level by those recommending a ban, such as Slow Food and the Pesticide Action Network. These organisations claim there are proven alternatives.

Parties in this particular lobby noted that previous claims of crop yield collapse with other, now restricted pesticides — for example, neonicotinoids — did not actually materialise.

The relevant oilseed rape yields in the UK increased in 2014 rather than decreased after that partial ban, green lobbyists have claimed, citing research from independent consultants ADHB.

Before June, expect more twists and turns than from a drunken team of Tasmanian dirtdevils on a cruise ship stag night — in choppy waters.


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