Glyphosate: the battle drags on

The European Commission’s surprise approval of a five-year extension to glyphosate’s EU license at the end of November should have marked the end of one of the most controversial and drawn-out battles over herbicide use in recent history. Bringing a two-year stalemate to a close, EU member states finally reached a consensus on the reauthorisation of the active ingredient in the world’s most commonly used weed-killer weeks before its license was due to expire this month. Sadly, any hopes that this would be the final word on the matter, if only for another five years, were dashed almost as soon as the licence renewal was announced.

Demonstrating his disdain for the majority opinion, French President Emmanuel Macron immediately took to Twitter to announce he had instructed his ministers to find alternatives to glyphosate, and that France would ban the compound within three years. His environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, chimed in, saying that three years ought to be long enough to “get everyone on board” with the idea. Italy is also still keen to see the substance banned, and like France is home to a number of chemical companies that would stand to do very nicely indeed if it were to be outlawed.

The most vehement of the anti-glyphosate crew, activist groups are not ready to give up anytime soon, either. Earlier this month, two European environmental organizations, Global 2000 and the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), announced they would take legal action against Germany and the EU for allegedly breaching transparency rules in preparing reports that found glyphosate poses no threat to human health. In short, it looks as though Europe’s anti-herbicide brigade will not rest until the common sense which eventually prevailed among EU member states is overturned.

On top of stubborn opposition from the likes of France and Italy, the future of glyphosate is also under threat from politically-correct lawmakers on the other side of the Atlantic. Earlier this year, California added glyphosate to its list of carcinogenic compounds, a requirement under a state law known as Proposition 65. The designation would force companies selling products containing glyphosate to add warning labels to the packaging, despite the fact that the EPA has already concluded that the herbicide does not cause cancer. In response to California regulators, US farming groups have teamed up with glyphosate’s manufacturer to take legal action, saying that the requirement to label all products containing the substance as carcinogenic would cause ripple effects on the nation’s food production system, as well as spread false information and confusion.

Such developments might lead most reasonably-minded people to assume that evidence must exist that demonstrates glyphosate is harmful to human beings or the planet. Surely all these lawmakers and activists cannot be basing their opposition to the continued use of the compound on environmentalist dogma that has absolutely no basis in fact?

But the evidence to the contrary could not be any clearer. After extensive testing, globally respected organisations including the European Food Safety Authority, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, and the European Chemicals Agency have all independently concluded that the compound poses no threat to human health. The only opposition to the consensus of expert scientific opinion on the matter came in the shape of a lone 2015 evaluation from the International Agency for Research for Cancer (IARC), which concluded that glyphosate was a probable carcinogen. Bizarrely, it seems that much of the opposition to the continued use of the herbicide is based solely on the contents of this study, despite the fact that its findings have been debunked as junk science. Earlier this year, for instance, an investigation conducted by the Reuters news agency revealed that authors of the study had ignored research that proved there is no link between glyphosate and cancer in humans, and had intentionally edited out material from their draft report that proved this to be the case. In spite of this, major governments, lawmakers and lobbyists around the world are calling for glyphosate bans that could have serious implications for agriculture and the food supply chain.

What makes French and Italian plans to go against the EU and ban glyphosate within three years so concerning is the fact that there is no viable alternative to the compound. Opponents of the chemical claim more environmentally-friendly materials can be used to control weeds, but these are either untested or would put a monumental financial strain on farmers. It would be impossible to develop a cost-effective alternative to glyphosate within the timeframe Macron has suggested, making his calls to ban it both reckless and irresponsible. Like the lawmakers in California who have labelled the chemical as carcinogenic with no credible evidence to support their claim, Macron and his anti- glyphosate allies in Europe have completely ignored the science, instead preferring to play politics with the issue.

So, while the science on glyphosate is well and truly closed, the partisan debate over its continued use looks set to continue on both sides of the Atlantic, showing the extent to which we live in an age where political considerations trump the facts. While European farmers may have won a temporary reprieve from being forced to abandon use of a chemical on which their livelihoods depend, it seems likely that the green lobby will not rest until its goal of having glyphosate banned has been realised, regardless of science or democracy.

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