Glyphosate continues to be subject of much controversy, and the sensitive debates surrounding the process of renewal of its license in Europe are turbulent. As the European Commission has just again reiterated its commitment to halving pesticide use and risk by 2030 in the European Union (EU), we take a closer look at the latest policy developments and scientific findings regarding the most widely used weedkiller.
Is the European Glyphosate Authorization Process Impartial?
As for all pesticides in the European Union (EU), glyphosate is allowed to be used as long as its license is valid. In 2018, the license for glyphosate was renewed for an additional 5 years (instead of the 15 years requested by the industry) and will therefore expire end of 2022. The renewal process is ongoing and is now subject to a scientific assessment by Member States, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) according to criteria laid down by the European regulations. The pesticide industry has applied for a 15-year renewal, insisting that glyphosate is safe. Whilst the ECHA has shared its opinion, EFSA has announced a delay in its assessment, which will likely result in an automatic temporary extension of the glyphosate license.
Early June, the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), an international non-for-profit bringing together over 90 member organizations addressing how the environment affects health, published a report that raises many questions about the scientific objectivity of the current re-evaluation process of glyphosate in view of a possible renewal in Europe. The authors support that scientific evidence of glyphosate’s carcinogenicity has been dismissed by EU risk assessors.
Any failure to recognise glyphosate’s carcinogenicity potential marks a step backwards in the fight to beat cancer.
— Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) (@HealthandEnv) June 8, 2022
Dr. Peter Clausing, toxicologist and co-author of the report comments: “Animals exposed to glyphosate developed tumors with significantly higher incidences as compared to their unexposed control group, an effect considered as evidence of carcinogenicity by both international and European guidelines. Yet, the EU risk assessors have dismissed all the tumors findings from their analysis, concluding that they all occurred by chance and that none of them was actually related to glyphosate exposure.”
The report states that “on the basis of this evidence, glyphosate should in fact be classified as a substance “presumed to have carcinogenic potential for humans”, and according to the EU law on pesticides, be removed from the EU market”.
Despite this evidence, a few weeks ago, the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) announced its decision to maintain their opinion that glyphosate is “toxic” but not “carcinogenic”. This is in contradiction with the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) classification of glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen”.
2/2 RAC also considered all comments received in the consultation. The committee assessed glyphosate’s hazardous properties against criteria in the CLP Regulation & based on them, they found that there is not sufficient scientific evidence to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen
— European Chemicals Agency – ECHA 🇪🇺 (@EU_ECHA) June 9, 2022
All this shows a worrying discrepancy between the EU and international assessment. Unfortunately, it also reinforces the doubts regarding the objectivity of the EU glyphosate authorization process, which brings back a sense of “déjà vu”, and is reminiscent of what happened during the previous renewal process in 2017.
Glyphosate is Everywhere: in our Food, in Our Ecosystems, in Our Bodies
But glyphosate doesn’t only pose a risk to human health, it also severely impacts our food, biodiversity and the environment. As the most widely used weedkiller in the world (it is the active ingredient in Bayer-Monsanto’s Roundup), glyphosate is sprayed on fields, but also leeches into the surrounding environment (water bodies, soil, dust, air) at the cost of biodiversity.
During a webinar on glyphosate hosted by the European Parliament in May, Dr Violette Geissen, researcher at the Department of Environmental Sciences at Wageningen University, explained that in conventional agriculture, which heavily relies on pesticides, glyphosate, can be found everywhere (soil, water, sediment and dust). Worryingly, fields cultivated with organic methods still get contaminated too.
What does this mean? It means that aquatic life is exposed, so are insects and humans who eat food that is in contact with poisoned soil. Biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, and this is no coincidence. Even at levels deemed safe, pesticides have been shown to cause a loss of biodiversity, including reducing populations of beneficial insects, as well as birds and amphibians.
“Excessive use and misuse of pesticides result in contamination of surrounding soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying beneficial insect populations that act as natural enemies of pests and reducing the nutritional value of food”, stated the UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food already back in 2017.
Combined with the overexploitation of arable land, pollution, urbanization and climate change, the use of pesticides threatens the entire ecological system upon which food production depends.
And the uncontrolled spread of glyphosate does not stop at nature; it also finds its way to our plates. Relatively high levels of the infamous herbicide have been found in foodstuffs such as almonds, carrots, quinoa, soy products, corn, vegetable and corn oil, canola seeds, beets and sweet potatoes as well as popular breakfast products like oatmeal and cereals. Studies suggest that the presence of glyphosate in people’s bodies has increased by 1,300% between 1993 and 2016, a trend that does not seem to have reversed in recent years, as a study from 2021 shows, which found quantifiable urine glyphosate levels in 99% of the French population, with higher values in men, in younger people, and in farmers.
The EU Contradictions on the Reduction of Pesticides
With such a sorry record, the ban of glyphosate in Europe should be plain common sense. Yet, although the current authorization of glyphosate in Europe expires in December 2022, the EU has postponed its decision on whether to renew glyphosate until the middle of 2023, due to delay in EFSA’s evaluation, which they say it is due to the intensification of the controversy over the safety of the herbicide.
Stella Kyriakides, the EU Commissioner for Health and Food safety, stated that she was “deeply concerned that the assessment of glyphosate is delayed” but noted “the high level of interest in the evaluation process,” adding that it is “extremely important to carefully review and consider all the new evidence.”
This delay should lead Europe to issue a temporary extension for the use of the controversial herbicide in 2023, even though the European Commission has presented its proposal for new EU pesticides rules on June 22, setting a binding target of reducing the use and risk of pesticides by 50% by 2030 which was one of the key objectives set by the EU Farm to Fork Strategy. The extension of the glyphosate license puts such target in jeopardy.
Time is up for pesticides.
Cutting pesticides by 50% by 2030 was #EUFarm2Fork commitment.
Today we deliver. The time to act is now.
To achieve our goal, farmers will be fully supported financially through the transition to sustainable food systems. Nobody will be left behind. pic.twitter.com/IyztWGQRpj
— Stella Kyriakides (@SKyriakidesEU) June 22, 2022
The same Stella Kyriakides yet declared in a press conference earlier this month that “sustainable food systems are dependent on our natural resources and on us protecting our biodiversity. Business as usual is not an option, we need to urgently ensure this crucial transition. A key element to do so is to reduce the effects of pesticides on our air, water and wider environment”.
Glyphosate is part of intensive, “business as usual” agriculture. So why wait to get rid of it?
Well, the chemical industry has spared no efforts to put the brakes on any reform of the use of pesticides in Europe, and they are now using the war in Ukraine to put more pressure on increasing agricultural production and boost the use of pesticides to address fears of food insecurity (read our reaction).
Farming Without Pesticides is Possible
However, growing scientific evidence shows the “business-as-usual” standpoint is woefully out of date and dangerous for the future of humans and the planet, with industrial agriculture representing a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and being acknowledged as a key root cause of the climate and biodiversity crises.
Slow Food believes that the transition towards agroecology is the only reasonable way forward to guarantee sustainable food security on the long-term. A belief that is now backed by peer-reviewed data and successful examples from the field. Most recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) even concluded in its 2022 report on climate change that agroecological practices and principles support food security.
And that’s not it, since agroecology also ensures soil fertility, the presence of people in the countryside, and biodiversity protection, while maintaining the productive capacity of agricultural systems.
Among other things, agroecology seeks to reduce and eliminate the use of synthetic chemical products, uses resources efficiently to reduce dependence on external inputs, promotes traditional technical skills and lowers the carbon footprint of food production, distribution and consumption, thereby also combatting the pollution of the air, water and soil.
Unlike what agri-food corporations want us to believe, alternatives to intensive, polluting and pesticide-hungry monocultures exist, and they work, but they threaten their business models and record profits.
Right now, the agricultural system poses many threats to European citizens’ health, who are in contact with chemicals even without wanting it and especially without choosing it.
European countries are the ones who will have to vote on the renewal of glyphosate. When the time comes, we call on our national ministers to listen to science, agroecological farmers and citizens, take a stand and vote against the renewal, and set in motion the shift to agroecological pesticide-free food systems.
With the European Citizens Initiative “Stop Glyphosate”, we are over one million EU citizens calling on the EU Commission to fully ban glyphosate and to set clear targets towards a pesticide-free future.
With the European Citizens Initiative “Save Bees and Farmers”, we are 1.2 million EU citizens demanding a phase out of synthetic pesticides in Europe and measures to save biodiversity and support farmers.
We call on all institutions and food systems actors to stop glyphosate and promote agroecology, now!