Some studies say that glyphosate may cause cancer (WHO), while others say it may not. It seems that they are not definitive about the risk of cancer (biodiversity degradation is another story altogether). But still, a multinational company and our institutions want to force us to use and eat it (we surely have it in our bodies in concentrations many times higher than it is allowed to be in water!). So lets get this straight…glyphosate may cause cancer but since we are not 100% sure it does, lets all go ahead and use this weed killer and also, the crops specially engineered to withstand its potency. What ever happened to the precautionary principle in the European Union? It has been made a statutory requirement, HAS IT NOT?
— By Jenny Hopkinson
5/17/16, 5:29 PM CET
Glyphosate’s fate in Europe has become far from certain, potentially creating more delays for U.S. farmers anxiously awaiting approval of three biotech soybeans caught up in the rift in Brussels over the weedkiller and its genetically compatible crops.
Member country representatives meeting as part of the European Commission’s Plants, Animals, Food and Feed Committee could vote as early as Wednesday on whether and how long to keep the widely used and politically volatile herbicide on the market.
Should the committee make a decision — and it’s unclear if it will — the commission will act on those conclusions.
A recently leaked version of the proposal showed the commission is seeking renewal of the chemical for nine years — longer than the seven years the European Parliament called for but shorter than the standard 15-year time frame for pesticide authorizations.
The vote would come after months of delay and pressure from environmental and consumer groups to limit the use of the herbicide, a key complement to glyphosate-resistant crops, because of concerns it could cause cancer. Since most biotech crops are genetically engineered to withstand treatment with the chemical, the reauthorization has escalated into a high-profile fight in the war over GMOs in Europe.
Caught in the crossfire are three genetically engineered soybeans, each more than six months overdue for a vote by the Commission on whether to allow them to be imported into the European Union.
“There is a desire to get through glyphosate before they finalize any more of these approvals,” a U.S. agriculture industry source said. “That’s what we are hearing.”
Europeans have long been skeptical of the safety of GMOs. EU regulators required labeling of genetically engineered food in the early 2000s, and more than half of the member countries have banned the cultivation of the crops.
So glyphosate already had a target on its back when the EU started its standard review of the herbicide. The current authorization expires June 30. Since Europe largely doesn’t grow GMO crops, the chemical is mostly used for clearing weeds from fields before planting.
Glyphosate’s image took another serious blow in March 2015 when the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer released findings that the chemical is “probably carcinogenic in humans.” While that determination is at odds with the EU’s findings that the herbicide is unlikely to pose a public health risk, it has held a lot of weight with the public and elected officials. And a report from a separate WHO panel released on Monday that found glyphosate is “unlikely to cause cancer in people via dietary exposure” is likely too late to sway officials’ stances.
Amid those concerns, a vote in March on glyphosate’s reauthorization was postponed, after countries couldn’t reach a majority on what to do. The bulk of member states representing a majority of the EU’s population will need to be in favor in for the chemical to stay on the market. As a result, all eyes are on France and Germany, two large countries that have yet to fully pick a side.
While the proposal has been amended to reflect concerns from the two countries over chemical mixes and biodiversity protections, sources tell POLITICO that France and Germany are planning to side against or abstain from the vote, leaving in doubt whether the measure can pass.
For a qualified majority vote to be formed for or against the glyphosate renewal, barring a wholesale “yes” vote from all other counties — which is highly unlikely — France or Germany would need to change their position.
If there is no clear qualified majority, officials have yet to determine how they plan to move forward, a source close to the negotiations says.
Calls for shorter renewal period
Meanwhile in April, a YouGov survey of 7,000 Europeans found that two-thirds support banning the chemical, according to news reports. Days later, the European Parliament called for re-approving the pesticide for just seven years, citing health concerns.
In the draft proposal shown to POLITICO, the Commission says it will propose to reauthorize the chemical for nine years, but warns that the period might be cut short if the European Chemicals Agency also concludes next year that glyphosate causes cancer.
Monsanto, which first created glyphosate resistant crops under the trade name “Roundup Ready,” has said the EU has no grounds to do anything short a full renewal of the authorization.
“The European reevaluation assessment … has been one of the most through and extensive reviews ever conducted on an agricultural product,” spokeswoman Charla Lord said. “The European Commission has granted 15-year approvals in previous renewals of active substances. We see no reason why glyphosate should be treated differently, especially since EFSA concluded that it is unlikely to pose a risk to humans and the environment when used correctly.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting its own review of the chemical and is largely expected to clear it for use with few restrictions. In a recently leaked internal report, an agency panel found the chemical “not likely to be a human carcinogen.” Although it’s unclear when the EPA will finish its full review, the agency should issue the cancer findings by the end of the year, an EPA spokeswoman said.
The political wrangling over glyphosate in Brussels comes as U.S. soybean growers await long-overdue decisions from the EU on three GMO varieties that have gained sign-off in other major export markets: Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready 2 Xtend” soybeans, which are resistant to glyphosate and the herbicide dicamba; the company’s “Visitive Gold” variety, which is high in oleic acid, producing oil that doesn’t need to be partially hydrogenated and thus avoids a major source of trans fat in food; and Bayer Crop Science’s “Balance GT” soybeans, which are tolerant of glyphosate and the herbicide isoxaflutole.
The companies and growers say the herbicide-resistant soybeans are needed to control weeds that have developed natural resistance to glyphosate because of its overuse. While they are enthusiastic about the products, they’re growing them only on a limited basis to avoid the possibility that an exporter would accidentally ship them to Europe and run afoul of European prohibitions on unapproved GMO crops.
The commission was expected to decide on the GE soybeans early this year – well after the statutory deadline of three months after the release of EFSA’s evaluation of a product’s risks. The independent agency delivered an opinion on the Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans in June 2015 and on the others the following month.
“Approval now of these events is needed now for the EU Commission to have any semblance of a working biotech approval process,” Richard Wilkins, president of the American Soybean Association, wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman in April.
Wilkins pointed to World Trade Organization findings that Brussels’ foot-dragging on the approval of biotech products violates trade obligations and noted concerns within the EU that officials are failing to meet legally binding deadlines for processing applications.
“Timely approval by the European Commission also will avoid the risk of unnecessary costs and disruption to the essential supply of feedstocks needed by the EU’s livestock, poultry and feed industries, which are more than 70 percent dependent on imports of protein,” Wilkins said.
Although officials haven’t said so publicly, it is believed the glyphosate reauthorization would need to happen before any biotech crop approvals, sources said. Now, with the vote by the committee looming, biotech supporters are optimistic the commission will take quick action on the pending crops.
“The approvals for these products are long overdue in accordance with the EU’s own timelines, so we expect to see movement on these very soon,” said Matthew O’Mara, managing director of international affairs for The Biotechnology Innovation Organization.
— Giulia Paravicini contributed to this report.