Published January 17, 2017 at www.eurofoodlaw.com

Controversy over the herbicide glyphosate has been raging for years in Europe but the plant protection product has neither been subject to an outright ban or given the all-clear. Katia Merten-Lentz of international law firm Keller and Heckman explains how glyphosate found itself in limbo.

Glyphosate, or N-(phosphonomethyl) glycine, is one of the world's most generally used herbicides. Introduced commercially by Monsanto in 1974, glyphosate kills weeds by blocking proteins essential to plant growth.

Each year, more than 1.4 billion pounds of this herbicide is applied in over 160 countries. Its’ effects on the environment and human health are not entirely clear and scientists are divided about its link to cancer.

The end of what has become a bitterly fought out “glyphosate saga” is not yet in sight, as the risk management measures proposed by the Commission and the risk assessment outcomes are doubted by the scientific community.

Differing risk assessments

Glyphosate is the main ingredient in the Monsanto’s pesticide “RoundUp”, which is also absorbed by animals and humans when they eat contaminated vegetables and meat.

A new study carried out by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany has found that 99.6% of the German population has been contaminated by the herbicide , a disturbingly high percentage that has put pressure on scientific authorities to clarify what the real effect of this substance on human health actually is.

The first official scientific assessment was carried out by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The results of this study, published in March 2015, found that glyphosate is “probably” able to cause cancer in humans and, consequently, IARC classified glyphosate as a ‘Group 2A’ carcinogen.

The scientists at IARC concluded that there was “limited” evidence that glyphosate exposure causes cancer in humans, and “sufficient” evidence that it does in animal studies.

Conversely, a few months later, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published the outcomes of its own risk assessment which led to a different conclusion.

According to EFSA’s experts, “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the evidence does not support classification with regard to its carcinogenic potential according to Regulation (EC) No 1272/2008” (the EU Regulation on classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures).

EFSA’s position was backed by other organisations. The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization's (WHO) Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) concluded, as EFSA had done, that the chemical is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet".

Unsurprisingly, this statement was warmly welcomed by the European Glyphosate Task Force (GTF), a consortium of companies endorsing the continued use of the herbicide.

The political debate

The different outcomes of the scientific assessments carried out at present have served to inflame the political debate as both supporters and detractors (mainly environmental and food safety NGOs) of glyphosate, now have scientific evidence to support their arguments.

Consequently, it becomes ever more difficult to navigate through the glyphosate morass. In case of scientific uncertainty, the general European principle of precaution should have found application, leaving it up to the European Commission to manage the risks related to human health.

But in spite of the potential risks for human health and EFSA’s non-binding opinion, the European Commission proposed to extend the licence authorising the sale of glyphosate in the internal market for 15 years last summer.

Italy joined France, Sweden and the Netherlands in opposing the Commission’s proposal, which failed to win the qualified majority needed for its adoption. Therefore, the Commission offered, and obtained, a limited 18-month extension to allow time for further scientific study.

Such further scientific analysis will be undertaken by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which is responsible for managing the harmonised classification and labelling (CLH) process for hazardous chemical substances.

The ECHA has already clarified that, as a pesticide, “glyphosate is subject to the Plant Protection Products Regulation (PPP) and its use has to be authorised by the Member State where the plant protection product is used”.

A harmonised classification and labelling proposal were submitted at the end of May 2016 by the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA). Such a proposal was subject to a 45-day public consultation, which was launched on June 2nd and ended on July 18th, 2016.

The ECHA will be taking the results and observations of the public consultation into account and provide an official opinion by the end of November 2017. However, it is unlikely that the ECHA opinion will really put an end to the “glyphosate saga”.

Further risks assessments on the substance are about to be finalised in the US, where a wide variety of popular food products, such as cookies, crackers and chips, were recently found to contain herbicide residues.

Furthermore, this month in Europe, the European Commission accepted a European Citizens’ Initiative asking it to ‘propose to member states a ban on glyphosate; to reform the pesticide approval procedure, and to set EU-wide mandatory reduction targets for pesticide use’. The petition will be formally registered on January 25th, starting a one-year process for the collection of signatures.