Glyphosate is an active substance used in many herbicides. It has been on the market since 1974 and has now become one of the world’s most widely used active substances in plant protection products, accounting for about 25% of the global herbicide market. It is mainly used in agriculture, but on the domestic market it is commonly known as ‘Roundup’ and is used for weed control in gardens.
The 15-year re-authorisation of glyphosate was due late last year, but due to differing opinions and diverging scientific assessments about its carcinogenic (cancer inducing) properties, a decision was delayed for six months. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded in November 2015 that “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans”. However, in March 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
A great many people have contacted me over the last few months both for and against the re-authorisation of glyphosate. Farmers stressed its importance for weed and grass control, especially in our unpredictable climate and that its loss would impact on soil structure and greatly decrease productivity. Many others expressed their concern that the herbicide poisons the soil and wildlife, disrupts valuable ecosystems and endangers human lives.
Two processes are necessary to authorise a pesticide for use in the European Union. Firstly the active substances involved are assessed by the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA), then plant protection products containing the active substance are authorised by the individual member state governments.
The European Parliament lacks the power to block the re-approval of chemical substances. However, in light of the ongoing controversy surrounding glyphosate, Labour MEPs at this month’s Plenary voted for a strong resolution asking the European Commission to reconsider the re-authorisation. We proposed a 7-year authorisation period during which the Commission should reassess any new evidence indicating the carcinogenic hazards associated with glyphosate. We asked that a robust safety assessment process should take place with regards to chemical substances and that this should also address the problem of glyphosate residues in food and drinks available throughout the EU.
Labour MEPs are thoroughly aware of the extent of use of glyphosate-based herbicides in European farming, including here in Scotland, and we are not keen to impose any further burden on farmers who have come to depend on the herbicide, but we couldn’t ignore the legitimate concerns voiced by the scientific community and the general public.
In light these concerns Labour MEPs wanted attention to be paid to the deficiencies in the EFSA-conducted assessments, especially as glyphosate is not only used in farming, but in gardening and in public spaces and often open to direct contact with people.
We are of course disappointed that his week the European Commissioner for health and food safety has decided to ignore the Parliament’s resolution and re-authorise glyphosate for ten years without any specific restrictions. This means that the final decision on the use of this herbicide now rests with the UK and Scottish governments.