EU vote on glyphosate weedkiller could go down to the wire, says NFU vice president Guy Smith
The long-running saga over the future of the world's most widely-used weed-killers could finally be resolved next week – and it could potentially have a profound effect on East Anglian agriculture.
The EU Commission is due to vote on October 25 whether to renew the licensing approval for glyphosate, a chemical which has sparked conflicting opinions in the research community.
A 2015 study by the World Health Organisation's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said glyphosate was 'probably carcinogenic to humans', but that finding was later contradicted in studies by EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) and the European Chemicals Agency's (ECHA's) Committee for Risk Assessment.
While environmental campaigners believe there is enough evidence to ban the product, farmers say its loss could prompt significant yield losses for winter wheat and barley, and prompt a change of cropping patterns as growers find new ways to control weeds like black-grass without a viable chemical alternative.
National Farmers' Union vice president Guy Smith, who also chairs the Norfolk Farming Conference, was this month re-elected as vice-chair of the Copa (Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisations) working group on phytosanitary questions, which campaigns on behalf of European farmers.
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He said: 'As is often the case in Brussels it looks like this decision could go to the wire.
'The commission's insistence that the reauthorisation of glyphosate must have the backing of enough member states that represent 65pc of the EU population means the voting could be tight with France and Germany holding the balance. We are pleased to see the UK resolute in its commitment to reapproval.
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'I suspect we are going to see a limited reauthorisation far less than the 15 years proposed by the relevant EU agencies. This is clearly more interesting to the UK given Brexit. But I'm nervous how tight things are as we enter the final furlong.
READ MORE: The pesticide divide: Two sides to the glyphosate debate'We are demanding a 15-year extension because as far as we are concerned, there is no grounding for not giving it. The EFSA and ECHA all gave glyphosate a clean bill of health so there are no practical grounds not to accept it.
'If it was banned it would change the way we farm. I imagine a lot of farmers would have to swing towards spring cropping to control weeds, and that would impact yields. There are some studies on the cost implications, but for an average East Anglian farmer the fight against black-grass would become much more difficult and costly, because you would have to plough at this time of year rather than spraying with herbicides. There is no real alternative.
'It changes the game, and the ridiculous thing is there is an environmental cost as we would be using more diesel to be permanently cultivating – so why are the greens are taking this on? It just proves it is about ideology, and nothing else.'
Keith Tyrell, director of Pesticide Action Network UK, said the campaign to ban glyphosate was buoyed this week when the European parliament's environment committee voted in favour of phasing it out by 2020.
He said: 'There is a huge debate over the links between glyphosate and cancer, and from our point of view we think you really need to take a precautionary approach, If there is a dispute on the science then surely we need to err on the side of caution.
'The use of glyphosate has nearly doubled in 20 years and we are getting all sorts of problems with diversity loss, reducing habitats for a variety of species. It is reducing the richness of our wild flowers and that is having a knock-on effect on the quality of our environment. But we are not trying to demonise farmers.
'Farmers should not be abandoned or left out in the cold. They should be helped to grow crops without this chemical. Farmers want to do the right thing, but they are faced with a position now where farming practices are driven by the market, rather than what the environment can cope with.
'We think that farmers should be supported, and if they have to change cropping patterns, then they should be (financially) supported to do that.'