European regulators have again eschewed a decision on the renewal of the approval of the widely used weed killer glyphosate, giving fodder to critics who say the chemical causes cancer and should be banned.
Glyphosate's current license expires on 30 June and its renewal has divided the European Union's member states after contradictory scientific assessments. The Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF), which is made up of representatives of the 28 states, was to decide on the renewal yesterday, but the European Commission canceled the vote—which was bound to be indecisive yet again.
The commission had initially proposed to renew the chemical's license for 15 years, a plan that needed the member states' green light through a so-called qualified majority in the PAFF committee. In March, the committee failed to reach an agreement. At this week's meeting, member states were still split on a revised, 9-year renewal proposal, prompting the commission to scrap the vote again.
France opposes the renewal whereas other countries—including Germany, the Netherlands, and Portugal—were intending to abstain, says a source close to the negotiation. “Since it was obvious that no qualified majority would have been reached, a vote was not held,” a commission spokesperson says in a statement forwarded to ScienceInsider and quoted by other news outlets. (The commission did not respond directly to ScienceInsider's requests for comment.)
Technically, after inconclusive votes by member states, the commission could go ahead with the renewal. (It has already used this possibility after comparable deadlocks, for example to authorize a genetically modified maize for cultivation in the European Union in 2014, and to ban pesticides that are believed to be toxic to bees in 2013.) But in glyphosate's case, the commission has made it clear that it would not proceed without a “solid qualified majority of Member States,” the spokesperson says.
This decision shows that, faced with scientific controversy and public alarm, the commission “wants to share the blame with member states” if glyphosate stays on the market, Franziska Achterberg, food policy director at Greenpeace EU in Brussels, tells ScienceInsider. (Among several campaigns against the weed killer, a petition launched by the nonprofit organization foodwatch had gathered more than 146,000 signatures at the time of writing.) “As long as there is conflicting scientific advice, glyphosate should not be approved for use in the EU,” Achterberg said in a statement after the March vote was suspended.
Indeed several recent, authoritative scientific assessments have reached conflicting conclusions. In March 2015, the United Nations's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans," saying there is “limited evidence” that the weed killer causes cancer in humans but “sufficient evidence” from animal studies. Yet in November 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans.
EFSA's evaluation "considered a large body of evidence, including a number of studies not assessed by the IARC which is one of the reasons for reaching different conclusions,” the E.U. agency stated at the time.
Last month, the European Parliament also weighed in. In a nonbinding resolution, parliamentarians suggested a restricted renewal for 7 years. They also urged the commission and EFSA to disclose all the scientific evidence behind its positive opinion, and called for a more comprehensive, independent review of the chemical's health effects.
Monsanto, which manufactures glyphosate under the commercial name Roundup, has slammed the delays as “not scientifically warranted.” In a statement, the firm's vice president of global regulatory and governmental affairs, Philip Miller, says EFSA's risk assessment was “one of the most thorough evaluations of an agricultural product ever conducted.”
The commission's reticence to embrace EFSA's reassuring conclusion without member states' backing may cast a cloud of mistrust on the assessment of the European Union's own agency—which has been accused of being under undue industry influence. Yesterday, the commission said that if no decision is taken before the end of next month, “glyphosate will be no longer authorized in the EU and Member States will have to withdraw authorizations for all glyphosate-based products.”
What will happen next is unclear. The commission yesterday said it would “reflect on the outcome of the discussions.” The source close to the talks says the commission may try to sway influential member states, such as Germany, to weigh in favor of the renewal while it schedules another vote.