The battle over glyphosate rages on in Europe, creating a lot of question marks over whether the herbicide will continue to be used, and what will happen to agricultural practices—including but certainly not limited to biotechnology.
On June 29, European Union Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis announced that his agency would extend permission to use glyphosate in Europe for another 18 months. The decision, however, appears to simply extend the rancor in Europe over whether the world’s most-used herbicide will be available there.
This year’s fight began as something of a surprise. The German Social Democrat Party, the country’s oldest and the smaller part of a governing coalition with two other political parties, announced that it would oppose the European Commission’s re-approval of glyphosate for another nine years.
“The biodiversity of plants, insects and birds is threatened by herbicides,” said SPD spokesperson Angelika Lober. “The question is not whether glyphosate causes cancer, but how glyphosate, which is in our agriculture, food, in hygienic products and much more, has an effect in total.”
The SPD’s decision put a halt to the EC’s impending movement to approve glyphosate. Without Germany’s buy-in, the Commission doesn’t have the votes it needs for approval. Now, political machinations have begun, which involve different parts of the EC as well as member countries, to make a decision before the deadline of June 30. French Environment Minister Segolene Royal issued a statement on May 19, revealing that Germany, Italy, Sweden, Austria, and Portugal had voice disapproval or an intention to abstain from voting. To justify her decision, she offered this quote:
Glyphosate was classified as “probable carcinogen” by the IARC (WHO body specializing in cancer) in the summer of 2015.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer did issue a monograph classifying glyphosate as a Class 2a “probable” carcinogen, meaning that there was animal evidence but inconclusive human evidence that the herbicide was a cancer hazard (not a risk, which would evaluate the amount of our exposure to the chemical).
So far, IARC is the only major scientific body in the world to claim this. Most recently, the World Health Organization (of which IARC is a part of) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report that looked at the number of studies on glyphosate (among other herbicides), and concluded that (emphasis added):
Overall, there is some evidence of a positive association between glyphosate exposure and risk of (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma ) NHL from the case–control studies and the overall meta analysis. However, it is notable that the only large cohort study of high quality found no evidence of an association at any exposure level.
In view of the absence of carcinogenic potential in rodents at human-relevant doses and the absence of genotoxicity by the oral route in mammals, and considering the epidemiological evidence from occupational exposures, the Meeting concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.
In the U.S., a new National Academy of Science panel report noted that glyphosate’s use led to a reduction in other toxic chemicals. The panel also pointed out that in some cases the volume of chemicals used is misleading because the measure should be overall toxic impact, and not kilograms of one or another chemical in what amounts to an acute study.
Glyphosate is in the crosshairs not so much because it is widely used in households, farms and other sites, but because of its role in developing glyphosate-resistant genetically modified crops. As the Genetic Literacy Project has reported,
GMO critics claim glyphosate is linked to autism, cancer, gluten allergies, ‘leaky gut’ syndrome and other disorders using correlation graphs or studies by well-known advocacy scientists, mostly in marginal journals.”
The IARC classification was widely circulated by anti-chemical and anti-GMO advocacy groups, which argued for bans or tighter restrictions, and political bodies in many countries, including the European Union, considered bans.
Companies manufacturing glyphosate appear to think that the European Commission will ultimately extend glyphosate’s approval beyond the 18 months. Whether member countries follow along is another question (France already has banned the chemical). The decision could go to an EC appeal committee, which would depend on member states’ votes. The Commission could go for the European Parliament’s proposal and push a seven-year extension. Or it could extend glyphosate’s authorization until the European Chemicals Agency issues its opinion (which won’t happen until sometime next year).
If not for the one report on hazards by IARC, it’s difficult to say that this decision would have been the same. Germany’s SPD claims its decision was made on biodiversity grounds, and not human health risks. But France’s decision was more or less justified in the opposite direction. It was famously said (by Aeschylus or California Senator Hiram Johnson, depending on where you look) that in war, “truth is the first casualty.” The battle wears on; perhaps science was the first casualty in this one.
Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and nonprofits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.