Glyphosate is one of the world’s most widely used herbicides.

Tamina Miller/Creative Commons

Europe gives controversial weed killer a 5-year lease on life

The world's most popular herbicide can be used by European farmers for another 5 years. After several indecisive votes, a technical committee of the European Commission today approved a 5-year license renewal for glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Round-Up weed killer and similar products. The license was scheduled to expire on 15 December.

Glyphosate is less toxic to mammals than other herbicides. But it became highly controversial in 2015 after it was deemed probably carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization. The European Food Safety Authority and other regulators have concluded it is safe to use.

The chemical's commission license most recently expired in June 2016. But the commission's Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF), made up of representatives from the commission’s 28 member nations, couldn’t agree on the length of a renewed license. PAFF initially proposed a 15-year renewal, then a 9-year renewal, and eventually settled on an 18-month extension. 

Over the past 2 months, the committee again debated an extension, but no proposal secured the necessary “qualified majority” of PAFF members—16 countries representing 65% of the European Union’s population. But today 18 countries voted in favor of a 5-year renewal, including Germany and three others that had abstained in the previous vote. France, Italy, and Austria were among the nine countries that voted against the license, and Portugal abstained.

Stéphane Travert, France’s agriculture minister, told France's international public radio: “These are 5 years during which we will work to search for alternatives, 5 years during which we will mobilize research and innovation so that tomorrow we can modify agricultural practices for our farmers and for the environment.”

Christopher Connolly, a neurobiologist at the University of Dundee in the United Kingdom, told the Science Media Center that scientists must also redouble their efforts: "We must make the next 5 years count, so that an evidence-based decision may be made at the end of this period."

With reporting by Tania Rabesandratana.