European Chemicals Agency says glyphosate weed-killer should not be classed as a carcinogen

A farmer spraying his crops. Picture: Ian Burt

A farmer spraying his crops. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

The scientific debate over the safety of one of the world's most widely-used weed-killers has taken another turn after a European agency concluded it should not be classed as a carcinogen.

The use of glyphosate has sparked conflicting opinions in the research community. Previously, a 2015 study by the World Health Organisation's (WHO's) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said glyphosate was 'probably carcinogenic to humans', but a later WHO study, co-authored with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), found the chemical was 'unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet'.

Now the European Chemicals Agency's (ECHA's) Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) has concluded that the available scientific evidence 'did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, as a mutagen or as toxic for reproduction'.

This opinion will be taken into account when the European Commission and EU member states consider whether to renew the licensing approval for glyphosate as an active substance in pesticides, later this year.

The announcement was welcomed by farmers, but criticised by environmental campaigners.

National Farmers' Union (NFU) vice president Guy Smith said: 'The overwhelming weight of evidence shows that glyphosate poses no risk to human health when used correctly. This opinion is shared by regulatory bodies around the world, including the WHO, the FAO and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

'Glyphosate plays a vital role in agriculture in the UK and around the world. It 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.

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'Now ECHA has released its classification there can be no reason why glyphosate should not be reauthorised for a further 15 years when the European Commission makes its decision later this year.'

Among the groups campaigning against the use of glyphosate is the Soil Association, whose policy director, Peter Melchett, runs an organic farm in west Norfolk.

He said: 'The ECHA's view contradicts the position of the IARC, which classified glyphosate as a 'probable carcinogen' in 2015.

'It is not clear why the ECHA reached a different conclusion from IARC but unlike IARC, the ECHA has relied to a large extent on unpublished data from the pesticide industry, which is unlikely to be made available for independent scientific scrutiny or verification.

'The ECHA only reviewed evidence on glyphosate in isolation, rather than as it is used, in products that always contain other substances. However, EFSA has cautioned that some glyphosate products 'contain higher toxicity'. It has also recommended the UK and other governments to restrict the use of glyphosate pre-harvest, and in public parks, playgrounds and gardens.

'While the debate on links between glyphosate and cancer will continue, the ECHA's opinion doesn't change the pressing need to develop even more practical alternatives for those farmers who currently rely on it.'

The ECHA says apart from the published studies on glyphosate, the committee also had full access to the original reports of studies conducted by industry and has 'assessed all the scientific data', including relevant information received during the public consultation in summer 2016.