European Commission fails to reach decision over future of weedkiller glyphosate – again

A crop sprayer at work in north Norfolk. Picture: Matthew Usher.

A crop sprayer at work in north Norfolk. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Farming leaders have called for the European Commission to intervene and end a long-running stand-off over the world's most widely-used herbicide.

The commission had been due to rule today on whether the weedkiller glyphosate would be reauthorised for a five-year period – but failed to achieve the qualified majority necessary.

The proposal needed the backing of 55% of countries representing 65% of the EU's population, and its failure extends the uncertainty over the fate of the chemical, which has already been running for months.

The European Commission has announced it will now submit the same proposal to the Appeal Committee – a higher-level meeting of governments – on November 27.

In October, the European Parliament backed a full ban on glyphosate 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, leading to a vote on a shortened five-year licensing period which ended in deadlock today.

The controversy over the chemical revolves around competing health claims. 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.

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Environmental campaigners believe there is enough evidence to ban the product, but 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.

The commission has the power to renew glyphosate's licence without a qualified majority, but European Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis told reporters in July it would not be approved without sufficient support from nation states.

Guy Smith, NFU vice president, said the European Commission had to put an end to the uncertainty.

'Once again we are left in a situation where no decision has been made on the reauthorisation of glyphosate – one of the safest plant protection products on the market which secures so much environmental benefit in terms of better soils and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

'Allowing member states to continue playing politics over this decision despite overwhelming science and evidence showing glyphosate's safety does nothing but undermine the credibility of the EU's regulatory bodies and the entire regulatory process.

'We ask the commission to stand by its own science and regulatory procedure, and re-authorise glyphosate for the maximum period possible. It cannot stand by and allow the issue to be politicised any longer.'