European Uproar Over Glyphosate Continues

23.01.2019 -

The controversial herbicide chemical glyphosate has been back in the news again lately, not least because of continuing speculation over what impact the more than 9,000 legacy lawsuits Bayer is facing after its acquisition of Monsanto last year will have on the active ingredient’s continued use in the EU.

Some users of Monsanto’s Roundup brand herbicide, in which glyphosate is the active ingredient, blame it for their cancer.

Apart from that, a year on from the European Commission’s renewal of glyphosate’s license for another five years, two members of the European Parliament in early January publicly cast doubt on the credibility of European food safety and regulatory authorities with a claim that the  re-registration, which followed a heated debate, was based on false premises.

In a report that raised the ire of several EU institutions, Austrian MEPs Stefan Weber and Helmut Burtscher-Schaden accused Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) –  which provided the scientific basis for the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) conclusion that glyphosate is not a carcinogen – of plagiarizing Monsanto registration documents to “greenwash” the chemical.

Using the computer software WCopyfind, the report’s authors said they concluded that BfR had simply copied and pasted from the Monsanto documents. Weber and Burtscher-Schaden claim to have found plagiarism in 50.1% of the chapters assessing published studies on health risks – including whole paragraphs and entire pages of text.

The accusations are similar to claims made several years ago by US environmentalists that Monsanto had written the report the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used to give glyphosate a clean bill of health. 

Both BfR and EFSA have vehemently denied the accusations.

In a comprehensive statement, BfR said it is “customary and recognized” in the evaluation of applications for registration of plant protection products that “relevant passages” of documents submitted by registrants are included; however, it insisted that the agency ”did not in any way adopt the applicant’s conclusions without first assessing their validity.”

Health Canada meanwhile has backed up its 2017 decision that glyphosate does not pose a risk to human health or the environment when used as directed, earning praise for fairness from Bayer.

In its re-evaluation, the Canadian health authority said that, in an “exhaustive review,” it worked “collaboratively” with the EPA to examine a wide range of environmental and health-related data and information and “reached the same conclusion as independent regulatory authorities in more than 160 countries, which have approved glyphosate-based herbicides as safe for use.”

The Austrian MEPs’ findings were released shortly before a parliamentary vote on tightening independent scrutiny of the EU pesticides approvals process, in which the Parliament approved a list of recommendations calling for a rethink of the EU authorization procedure.

As part of a broader political deal with the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) to back a report by the PEST special parliamentary committee calling for a revamp of the EU’s pesticide approval system, the EP’s Green faction disappointed many on the farther left side of the environmental movement by abstaining from voting on an amendment calling for an immediate ban on glyphosate.

The PEST committee was set up to review the EU approval process for agrochemicals following the 2017 renewal of glyphosate’s registration. Its recommendation, calling for the Commission to initiate a systematic review of all scientific studies concerning the carcinogenicity of active ingredients generally, was approved by a wide margin, with 526 votes in favor, 66 against and 72 abstentions.

Green MEP Bart Staes, speaking to journalists after the vote, said the faction would have liked to ban glyphosate and neonicotinoids; however, the main goal was to see the report passed. A request to ban glyphosate would have exceeded the mandate of the committee, and had no chance of being accepted, anyway, he added.

Some provisions included in the final text of the report are aimed at upgrading EFSA’s role in the approval process.  These include strengthening its mandate to align its findings with the European Medicines Agency (EMA), increasing the agency’s human and financial resources and adopting a fast-track approval authorization mechanism for low-risk pesticides and more scope for post-market evaluations.

The next round of EU decisions on whether to ban glyphosate will come in 2022.