In all, 14 member states voted in favour of extending glyphosate’s EU licence for another five years, while nine voted against, including France. Five countries – Germany, Bulgaria, Poland, Portugal and Romania – abstained from the vote. The compound’s current EU licence is scheduled to expire on 15 December, but EU officials have agreed an 18-month grace period to allow for the ongoing disagreement over its continued use to be resolved.
While the EC has been pushing for the extension of the EU licence for glyphosate, which has been used safely by farmers for over 40 years, a number of member states have raised objections to its continued use after fears were raised that it might cause cancer in humans. These concerns are the result of a study published in 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which attributed “probably carcinogenic” properties to glyphosate. It is this report that has persuaded half of EU member states to either vote against the extension of the compound’s licence or abstain from voting at all.
The problem is that subsequent assessments of glyphosate’s carcinogenic potential have unequivocally contradicted IARC’s conclusions. Follow-up evaluations by respected international authorities on food safety and agricultural best practice established that there is, in fact, no link between glyphosate use and an increased cancer risk. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), based on available data, provided scientific evidence for the compound’s safety for humans.
However, evidence notwithstanding, the damage was already done. And evidently, even the surfacing of evidence that the science and methodology behind the IARC study were fundamentally flawed was not enough for the herbicide’s opponents to reconsider their position. Over the course of five months, Reuters published two reports that revealed egregious integrity violations on IARC’s part. In June, an investigation discovered that the lead scientist working on the glyphosate monograph had deliberately excluded data from studies proving that no link existed between the use of glyphosate and cancer in humans.
Reinforcing doubt over the credibility of the study still further, Reuters brought to light in October that the report had been heavily edited before publication. Sections including scientists’ conclusions that glyphosate could not be linked to cancer in laboratory animals had been removed – a particular crucial omission, since it was animal studies that prompted IARC’s to conclude that there was sufficient evidence for glyphosate’s carcinogenicity. Following these exposés, the IARC assessment could only be regarded as thoroughly debunked and discredited.
In light of these revelations, the opposing voices from the green lobby only became louder. In fact, many of the countries that refused extending glyphosate’s EU licence may have done so more out of a misguided desire to appease the green lobby than anything else. However, what citizen activists and malleable MEPs overlook are the unexpected consequences of their actions. Their willingness to ignore hard science in favour of dogma could have devastating consequences. Not merely economic, allowing the glyphosate licence to lapse would be adversely affecting core concerns of the green lobby – environmental sustainability.
As well as forcing Europe’s farmers to switch to more expensive and less effective herbicides, banning glyphosate would spell the end of conservation agriculture. The irony in this is hard to miss, yet it clearly has not featured in the considerations of green protesters. Based on minimal soil disturbance, organic soil cover and crop rotation, conservation agriculture is fundamental in reducing CO2-emissions. The avoidance of tilling preserves the fields’ natural role as significant CO2-sinks, making this type of farming an important, sustainable tool in the fight against global warming. Ending the use of glyphosate would raise the requirement for aggressive soil-tillage, resulting in decreased fertility, soil degradation, and ultimately, loss of biodiversity.
On top of this, failing to extend the glyphosate’s licence could greatly complicate trade, which could lead to EU countries restricting the importation of products containing traces of the substance. During a committee meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), similar issues were raised. Several member states including the United States, Canada and Brazil, expressed concerns about how the EU’s inability to reach a consensus on glyphosate’s extension affects international standards on the herbicide, arguing that motivations to restrict the use of glyphosate “appear to lack scientific justification.”
With all this at stake, it is foolish to even consider outlawing a compound so vital to the EU’s agricultural sector, based solely on the findings of an unreliable report. After seven failed attempts to come to an agreement on the future of glyphosate, the time has come for all member states to disregard junk science and vote according to the overwhelming consensus of expert opinion. The great irony here is that refusing to re-approve glyphosate is supposedly done in the name of protecting public health and saving the planet. But doing so means causing great harm to both.