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EU fails to reach glyphosate consensus

November 9, 2017

The European Commission has again hit a wall in renewing the approval for the weedkiller glyphosate. The vote comes after 18 months of agonizing over the controversial herbicide.


The European Union on Thursday voted on whether to prolong the use of the common but controversial herbicide glyphosate within its borders, but failed to reach a consensus.

The proposal to renew the EU license for glyphosate for another five years failed to a reach a qualified majority, meaning a decision has again been postponed, according to lawmakers. The current license is due to expire on December 15, but there is an 18 month grace period.

Fourteen countries voted in favor of the renewal, nine against, while five, including Germany, abstained from voting. The proposal could now be referred to an appeal committee, or alternatively the Commission could draw up a new proposal to be voted upon.

"No qualified majority for glyphosate renewal in vote today," said Luxembourg's Environment Minister Carole Dieschbourg on Twitter. Belgian Agriculture Minister Denis Ducarme confirmed the result.

A qualified majority requires two conditions be met: that 55 percent of EU countries vote in favor, and that the proposal is supported by countries representing at least 65 percent of the total EU population.

France, one of the heavyweights to vote down the proposal, said it was only in favor of renewing the license for three years.

Read more: Farming without glyphosate — how would that work?

What it's used for

Glyphosate, commonly known by its Monsanto brand name Roundup, is the world's most widely used herbicide. In Germany, farmers treat about 40 percent of arable land with it.

The chemical is very effective in killing weeds, but has been linked to health concerns, including cancer.

Before sowing their crops, farmers often spray their fields with glyphosate to kill unwanted vegetation. An especially controversial practice is when farmers spray the herbicide before harvesting, killing all the weeds and leaving the crops alive, making harvesting simpler.

Why it's controversial

Last month the European Parliament voted for glyphosate to be banned by 2022 amid fears it causes cancer. The vote wasn't binding, but it increased the pressure on the bloc's executive arm, the European Commission, which had previously recommended the herbicide's license be renewed for 10 years. It then reduced its recommendation to five years, which failed to reach a majority on Thursday.

The EU Parliament noted at the time its serious concerns over allegations that US agricultural giant Monsanto had influenced research into its herbicide's safety. The revelations "shed doubt on the credibility of some studies used in the EU evaluation on glyphosate safety," the EU Parliament statement said.

In 2016, 48 members of the EU Parliament from 13 different countries had their urine tested for traces of the herbicide and every test turned up positive. The average concentration was 17 times higher than the European drinking water norm, according to the Greens Party.

A 2015 study from the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer found that glyphosate was "probably carcinogenic." That conflicted with findings from the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency, which said the substance was not likely to cause cancer in humans. 

A later analysis in 2016 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and WHO found it was unlikely to cause cancer from exposure through diet.

Read more: Was Monsanto involved in EU glyphosate study?

Public opinion

Activists last month handed the EU a petition signed by more than 1.3 million people calling for a ban on the herbicide's use.

The to-and-fro has dragged on since June 2016, when the EU's previous 15-year license expired, and an 18-month extension was granted.

Europe's main farmers union, the Copa-Cogeca, had said there was no alternative but to renew the license if the continent wants to maintain yields.

"Neither emotions nor politics should govern such important decisions," the union's secretary-general Pekka Pesonen said.

The Social Democratic Party and the Greens welcomed the deadlock, saying it demonstrated a desire to phase out use of the chemical.

Lobby groups were disappointed by the result, saying scientific evidence proved the product was safe.

aw/kms (AFP, dpa, epd, Reuters)