The European Commission will unilaterally renew the approval of the weedkiller glyphosate for another 10 years after member states failed to find an agreement over the controversial herbicide.
The decision comes on the back of months of heated debate over the impact of Europe’s most widely used herbicide on health and the environment, particularly over whether glyphosate can be considered carcinogenic – i.e. a driver of cancer in humans.
The herbicide’s approval in the EU originally expired back in mid-December 2022, but was temporarily extended for one year while awaiting further information from the EU’s food safety agency, EFSA. With the deadline for a re-approval of the herbicide approaching on 15 December, the European Commission proposed to renew the authorisation of the weedkiller for a further 10 years.
The Commission first invited EU countries to vote on its proposal back in October. However, the proposal failed to reach the necessary qualified majority among member states in the first round of voting after a number of countries – including EU juggernauts Germany and France – abstained.
Now, in a second vote on the proposal Thursday (16 November), member states yet again failed to find consensus.
According to sources close to the matter, countries voted the same as last time. This means that Austria, Luxembourg, and Croatia actively voted against the proposal, while Bulgaria, Belgium, Germany, Malta, the Netherlands, and France abstained.
The only notable exception was Italy, who previously voted in favour of the proposal but this time chose to abstain over concerns of pre-harvest use of glyphosate. According to the available information as per the comitology register today:
Number of Member States in favour : 17
representing a population of : 41,71%
Number of Member States against : 3
representing a population of : 3,01%
Number of abstentions : 7
representing a population of : 55,28%
So what will the Commission do?
The failure to garner a definitive position from member states means that the final decision is now left in the Commission’s hands – and the EU executive has made its intentions to re-approve glyphosate clear.
“The Commission […] will now proceed with the renewal of the approval of glyphosate for a period of 10 years,” the Commission said in a statement on Thursday. This will be “subject to certain new conditions and restrictions,” it added. This includes a prohibition of pre-harvest use as a desiccant and the need for certain measures to protect non-target organisms.
However, as member states are responsible for national authorisation of plant protection products (PPPs) containing glyphosate, they “continue to be able to restrict their use at national and regional level” if they consider this necessary, the statement points out.
This will be “based on the outcome of risk assessments”, particularly factoring in the need to protect biodiversity, it specified.
Germany has concerns
This is particularly relevant for Germany, which has previously vowed to take the controversial herbicide off the market by the end of the year.
Despite being obliged to abstain from the vote at the EU level due to an internal split in the ruling coalition, Germany’s green minister Cem Özdemir lambasted the Commission’s decision, pointing out that the member states that voted against or abstained from the Commission plan “represent almost 60% of the EU population”.
“The Commission would do well to at least take the will of the public into account in its decision,” the Green minister said in a statement, stressing that the Commission “cannot rule out the possibility that glyphosate harms biodiversity”.
“My ministry will now examine very carefully what follows from the Commission’s decision and what national options we have for action in order to implement the coalition agreement as much as possible,” he said.
Likewise, the news has not gone down well with civil society groups, more than 100 of which sent an open letter to the President of the European Commission, Von der Leyen, this week urging her to take action.
“It is unacceptable that the Commission still plans to go ahead with its proposal considering the amount of scientific evidence of the substance’s health impacts and the related suffering,” Natacha Cingotti, who leads campaign group HEAL’s health and chemicals programme, said.
Meanwhile, campaign group Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN) called the outcome of the vote an “important sign of Europe’s growing concerns surrounding the dangers linked to the widely used pesticide”.
“We regret that the Commission turns its back to independent science and citizens’ concerns and plans to re-approve this dangerous herbicide for another 10 years,” the group said in a statement. PAN Europe has also stated that this approval by the Commission “would breach the EU Pesticide Law, under which health and environment should come first. In case of doubt, the precautionary principle must be invoked.”
A recent IPSOS poll spanning six EU countries shows that only 14% of citizens express support for the prolonged use of glyphosate, while almost two-thirds (62%) of respondents favoured a ban on glyphosate.
However, EU farmers’ association Copa-Cogeca welcomed the news that the herbicide would be renewed, warning that there is currently “no equivalent alternative to this herbicide”.
“Without it, many agricultural practices, notably soil conservation, would be rendered complex, leaving farmers with either no solutions or with alternatives that consume even more herbicides,” the group warned in a statement.
Meanwhile, the glyphosate renewal group (GRG) – an industry coalition lobbying for the renewal of the weedkiller – welcomed the news, arguing glyphosate is an essential part of farmers’ toolbox.
This is needed both to secure European food supply, as well as facilitate the “continuation of conservation and regenerative farming systems” that allow farmers to achieve long-term invasive weed control without tilling the soil, the group added.
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