Glyphosate, the world’s leading weedkiller

The herbicide plays a key role in modern farming but the EU is under growing pressure to ban it amid claims it causes cancer.

What is glyphosate?

Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used herbicide (weedkiller), not least because it’s so effective. The substance has become a mainstay of modern agriculture and its popularity has rocketed since Monsanto developed Roundup Ready crops. These genetically modified plants are able to resist glyphosate so farmers kill the weeds and not their plants.

Why all the fuss?

NGOs have long had glyphosate in their sights but the fact it’s now twinned with GM has only increased their ire. Since the 1970s applications have increased a hundredfold and its persistence is causing a growing number of scientists to question whether it poses dangers to both the environmental and human health.

Is it a health risk?

That depends on who you speak to. Ask Monsanto and the likes of the European Crop Protection Association and they will say there is nothing to worry about. Go to campaigners and they will say the basis of European regulation is the precautionary principle and we just don’t know if it’s safe or not.

A study in 2013 by Friends of the Earth Europe is a microcosm of how this debate has raged. FoE found traces of glyphosate in urine samples from people in 18 different countries; on average 44% contained “quantifiable levels” of the chemical. Monsanto pointed out that “levels of glyphosate that have been detected in human urine in the general population, and even among farmers using glyphosate, correspond to intakes that are well below any allowable daily intake set by regulatory agencies”.

Is there more of it in food these days?

It’s difficult to say. We know that heaps more is being used on a range of crops, including maize, wheat, barley and edible beans. The fact it is also being used at stages closer to harvest and in greater intensities has prompted some to conclude that average residue levels on and in some harvested grains, oilseeds, and certain other crops are “substantially higher” than they were a decade ago and, as a result, human dietary exposures are rising.

Research in Germany last month found residues of the herbicide in 99.6% of urine samples, with 75% of people tested displaying levels five times higher than the legal limit of drinking water. As Footprint went to press, 150 MEPs were reportedly lining up to have their urine tested for the chemical

Do food companies need to worry?

Not at the moment, but pressure is mounting. Last year, the Soil Association called on bread companies to force their suppliers to stop using glyphosate after it was found in about a third of samples tested by DEFRA. The levels were within legal boundaries, the Federation of Bakers said. Whether the limits are set low enough is a moot point. This was however sandwiched in between two far more controversial studies.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said in March 2015 that it is “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Campaigners seized on this and called for the EU to ban it. But EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, didn’t agree with its US counterparts – its 6,000-page assessment concluded that the substance is “unlikely” to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.

Who should we trust?

Good question – and at the moment it’s difficult to say. EFSA and IARC were due to meet up in February to discuss their respective positions but that never happened. Instead, what has ensued is a transatlantic bun-fight between the groups. This started with a number of the IARC experts joining together with almost 100 other academics to pooh-pooh EFSA’s process.

What were the criticisms of EFSA?

In a letter to the European commissioner for health and food safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, the 96 scientists claimed IARC’s study was “by far the more credible”. They wrote: “We urge you and the European Commission to disregard the flawed EFSA finding on glyphosate in your formulation of glyphosate health and environmental policy for Europe and to call for a transparent, open and credible review of the scientific literature.”

How did EFSA respond?

EFSA hasn’t covered itself in glory of late, losing a four-year court battle last year in relation to its assessments of pesticides, so its boss, Bernard Uhl, had been reluctant to be drawn into a public spat in what he’d described as “the Facebook age of science”. But the pressure, from both peers and the public (135,000 people signed a petition to ban glyphosate), was too great.

Uhl finally published an 18-page letter defending his team and its findings in January. EFSA’s is “the more comprehensive hazard assessment”, he said. Reacting to suggestions that EFSA was too cosy with industry he highlighted that more than 40 active substances have been removed from the European market in the past 12 years.

So will glyphosate join them?

Kind of. The European Parliament has just (April 13, 2016) voted in favour of a seven-year licence, rather than the 15 years originally proposed by the European Commission. This is because of “concerns about the carcinogenicity and endocrine disruptive properties of the herbicide”. MEPs also called for an independent review and the publication of all the scientific evidence that EFSA used to assess glyphosate.

Health Commissioner Andriukaitis recently noted the “extraordinary degree of public attention and concerns” the matter has attracted. A just-published YouGov poll showed 64% of Europeans want a ban – this drops to 56% in the UK, where 36% don’t know which way the EU should go.

Next month national experts will also vote and, if there’s no qualified majority, it will be left up to the Commission to decide. It’s by no means a sure thing that it will stick with its original plans for reapproval.

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