On 24 March, a group of 30 MEPs led by Philippe Lamberts, co-president of the Greens/EFA group, has formally written to the European Commission in an effort to block its re-approval of the herbicide glyphosate in the EU by the end of the year. This marks another important step by the European Parliament to stop the herbicide’s re-authorisation in the EU in its efforts to protect both public health and the environment.

Glyphosate, which has been authorised in Europe since 2002, is the most widely used herbicide in the world and the basis of its Roundup Ready, glyphosate-resistant, genetically modified crops. If glyphosate is banned EU-wide, Monsanto is expected to lose around $100 million in sales of its own version of glyphosate-containing herbicide, Roundup.

Monsanto in court

The letter by MEPs was triggered by a court case in California in which Monsanto is being sued by members of the public who claim Roundup caused their cancers (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma). This case was in turn triggered by the decision by an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), to determine glyphosate as being ‘probably carcinogenic in humans’ back in March 2015. The lead case (civil action no. 3:16-md-02741-VC) has resulted in the unsealing of previously secret emails and letters that appear to show that Monsanto had long known about the DNA-damaging effects of glyphosate and then had worked to prevent that knowledge being made public.

Disclosed emails also revealed that Monsanto appeared to have prior knowledge of the IARC’s review of glyphosate released in 2015 giving it time to prepare for its rebuttal of the IARC’s findings and the independent scientific studies reporting genotoxic effects for the weedkiller. Much to Monsanto’s chagrin, the IARC refused to consider unpublished industry studies summarised in industry-sponsored reviews. It was Monsanto and other companies manufacturing glyphosate, between 2012 and 2016, that sponsored a series of review articles published in scientific journals, all of which conclude that glyphosate is not harmful to health. A report by a diverse group of European non-governmental organisations published earlier this year shows that the industry studies contain fundamental flaws from apparently calculated omissions. The studies also introduce irrelevant data and blatantly violate OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) guidance for the evaluation of rodent cancer studies.

Time to remove glyphosate from the marketplace

Despite concerns over glyphosate’s safety and carcinogenicity, global usage continues to increase with around 60% of this usage being on Roundup Ready GM crops. Given that EU pesticides regulations (1107/2009) prevent use of pesticide active ingredients where they are shown to have the potential to cause cancer, damage DNA, or have toxic effects on reproduction, European authorities, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) have been hard at work trying to justify glyphosate’s safety in an effort to rebut the views of the IARC.

Despite a large body of peer reviewed research linking glyphosate to cancer, there has been a long-standing tendency for regulatory authorities such as Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), EFSA, ECHA and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider glyphosate as safe, in all cases based on reliance on industry-sponsored review articles.

The EU approval of glyphosate will expire six months from the date the Commission receives the opinion of the Committee for Risk Assessment of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) or on 31 December 2017, whichever the earliest is. Just two weeks ago, on March 15th, ECHA’s Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) concluded that the available science was sufficient “to maintain the current harmonised classification of glyphosate as a substance causing serious eye damage and being toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects”. However, somewhat predictably, the RAC said the science did not currently meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, a mutagen or reproductive toxin.

This followed the re-assessment by EFSA on 12 November 2015 that concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.

The MEPs have urged the President of the European Commission to recommend to EFSA and ECHA to critically revise the validity of the industry backed Glyphosate task force (GTF) evidence and not propose any new approval of glyphosate in the EU until this has been done.

Is this in time for the bees?

The MEPs have also called on the European Commission to revise pesticide legislation that ensures that the scientific evaluation of pesticides for EU regulatory approval is based only on published peer-reviewed and independent studies, which are commissioned by competent public authorities instead of the agrochemical industry.

Precedent set by bee-killing pesticides

Encouragingly, the European Commission has already significantly restricted three neonicotinoid pesticides (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxan) and fipronil that have been proven to damage bee colonies in the EU. The Commission has now issued a legislative proposal to for a total ban on these pesticides, although EU member states and the European Parliament must still vote on the Commission’s proposal the draft documents have been drawn up.

The impact of the three neonicotinoids produced by Bayer and Syngenta on bees has been well documented.

Success of Grassroots petitions

Much of the pressure against bee-killing pesticides has been generated by linking a persuasive body of scientific evidence with grassroots pressure and petitions. The effect of online petitions highlighting the plight of the bee in both the US and in Europe cannot be underestimated especially given their effect on elected representatives such as MEPs.

In considering pesticide restrictions, MEPs have called for a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, an approach fully endorsed by ANH-Intl.

Call to Action

  • Sign the Pesticide Action Network’s petition to ban glyphosate
  • EU citizens: Ask your MEP to support a ban on glyphosate now!
  • UK citizens: Ask your MP and your MEP to support a ban on glyphosate now!
  • Choose organic food and cotton products where possible to help reduce usage of herbicides and other pesticides.
  • Please consider making a donation. Your support is the life blood of all our work at ANH-Intl.