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Farmers “left in limbo” as EU countries delay decision on glyphosate weedkiller

PUBLISHED: 14:17 25 October 2017 | UPDATED: 11:19 27 October 2017

A crop sprayer at work in west Norfolk. Picture: Ian Burt

A crop sprayer at work in west Norfolk. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant © 2012

Frustrated farmers have been “left in limbo” after EU countries failed to reach agreement on whether to extend the European licence for the controversial weedkiller glyphosate.

Earlier this week, the European Parliament backed a full ban on the world’s most widely-used herbicide by December 2022, with a majority of MEPs voting against the European Commission’s proposal to renew the chemical’s authorisation for 10 years.

But despite countries including the UK voting in favour of the renewal, the commission’s committee was not able to secure the necessary majority – so now a shortened five-year licensing period has been proposed, which is scheduled to be debated on November 9.

The long-running saga has been mired in controversy, with the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency and EU food safety and chemicals agencies reaching conflicting conclusions regarding its safety.

While environmental campaigners believe there is enough evidence to ban the product, East Anglian arable farmers say its loss could mean significant yield losses for winter wheat and barley, and prompt a shift to spring cropping and more cultivations as growers find new ways to control weeds like black-grass without a viable chemical alternative.

READ MORE: EU vote on glyphosate weedkiller could go down to the wire

With the current licence for glyphosate due to expire on December 15, farmers said the continued uncertainty was a blow for the UK’s agricultural community.

Arable farmer Tom Bradshaw is a member of the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) crops board for East Anglia, said: “It is incredibly disappointing that farmers are, once again, being left in limbo while EU politicians dither and debate. It is very hard to plan for the future when a tool that is vital to the viability of my farm, and is an integral part of my system, could be taken away at any moment.”

NFU vice president Guy Smith said: “The continued politicisation of this decision damages the credibility of the EU’s regulatory bodies and undermines the regulatory process. It also has huge implications for farming in the UK and across Europe.

“The overwhelming weight of science and evidence shows that glyphosate is perfectly safe when used correctly. This has been the conclusion reached by regulatory bodies around the world, including the EU’s two leading regulatory bodies – the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).

“Glyphosate reduces the need to use other herbicides, it helps to protect soil and cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need for ploughing, and it enables farmers in this country to grow crops that help produce safe, affordable, high quality British food.”

“There is no reason why glyphosate should not be reauthorised for 15 years, never mind the 10 years the Commission had proposed. We would urge member states to look at the science and base their decision on the evidence – which shows there is no reason not to reauthorise glyphosate.”

READ MORE: The pesticide divide: Two sides to the glyphosate debate

But campaigner Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, who also runs an organic farm in west Norfolk, said public health and environmental concerns around glyphosate have not been resolved, “and this controversial weed killer’s days are clearly numbered”.

“Not all farmers use glyphosate - it has never been permitted in organic agriculture, and an increasing number of non-organic farmers are exploring alternative methods of managing weeds,” he said. “This is partly due to recent research suggesting glyphosate could be causing significant harm to soil health and fertility.

“We need to build on the excellent work being done by farmers and researchers to develop alternatives to glyphosate so that farm businesses can continue to thrive if a decision is reached by EU countries to phase-out its use, whether on grounds of human health risks or environmental harm.”

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