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A pivotal decision is coming to head in Europe next week that could spell the long-term future of an important weedkiller there.
Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto Co.'s Roundup herbicide and dozens of other off-brand versions, is running out of time on its current authorization, which expires Dec. 15.
The European Commission’s Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed has scheduled a vote among representatives of European countries on a 10-year renewal of glyphosate on the continent—two-thirds of the length of the typical 15-year extension given for approving pesticides. The vote could be a milestone in the lengthy debate on allowing glyphosate on the continent.
A committee within the European Parliament, Europe’s legislative body, also voted Oct. 19 to phase out the herbicide by 2020.
But it’s unlikely that the delegates will muster enough support for a vote at all—leaving the commission scrambling to revise the proposal so it will pass, or let the registration of the widely used farm chemical lapse.
Opponents of glyphosate, who say it carries unacceptable health and environmental risks, hope the delay will force the commission to place more restrictions on the herbicide, such as banning it in public parks or allowing farmers to gradually cut back on use.
Monsanto declined to comment on whether it is confident that glyphosate will be re-registered next year, saying only that “there is no scientific or health basis to withhold approval.”
The European Commission wants to “modify the proposal until the majority of member states vote in favor,” Angeliki Lyssimachou, a campaign coordinator with the non-governmental Pesticides Action Network Europe, told Bloomberg Environment.
“If they decide to phase out in three years, in five years, it would be much better [than the] 10 years that they have right now,” Lyssimachou added.
France, Italy, Austria and other countries have stated they will not vote to renew glyphosate for 10 years.
Under commission rules, the member-states must reach a “qualified” majority to pass any proposal, meaning at least 15 nations and a representation of 65 percent of the EU’s population. Under this system, populous countries such as France hold more sway.
If there is no qualified majority, the commission won’t call for a vote, Lyssimachou said.
Glyphosate has long been controversial, particularly for its relationship to the first generation of genetically modified crops that were engineered not to die when sprayed with the chemical.
But opposition to the weedkiller hit its apogee over the last two and a half years, following a finding from the World Health Organization’s cancer-research arm that glyphosate “probably” causes cancer, specifically, non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) finding in March 2015—which is at odds with the conclusions of regulatory bodies around the world—breathed life in the movement to restrict glyphosate use.
Next week’s vote will be a milestone in the lengthy debate on allowing glyphosate on the continent. In June of last year, the European Commission renewed the license for 18 months when the bloc’s member-states refused to approve a longer term reauthorization for the chemical.
The renewal, which ends in December, allowed more investigation on its safety from the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). The agency ruled in March that glyphosate should not be classified as a carcinogen.
Skeptics of the IARC decision—including the chemical and agricultural industries—point to the ECHA finding, plus an earlier European Food Safety Agency opinion that cleared glyphosate of cancer-causing properties, as justification for an easy reauthorization.
“How long will they continue to push on this?” David Zaruk, a risk communications consultant based in Brussels and blogger who has been outspokenly critical of IARC, told Bloomberg Environment. “The commission has other business on the table.”
Although uncertainty in Europe may not create a financial hit, it could complicate Monsanto’s pending $66 billion merger with Bayer AG, Christopher Perrella, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst, told Bloomberg Environment.
“If it’s not re-registered in Europe ... it would have a minimal impact on exact financials, but it could be psychologically difficult, could make the deal more difficult,” Perrella said.
The fight in Europe closely mirrors the fight over Roundup in the United States, but with a key distinction: most European countries do not allow farmers to plant genetically modified seeds.
The adoption and development of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. boosted demand for glyphosate, which can be sprayed atop the engineered crops without harming them.
Only 15 percent of global glyphosate production goes to Europe, according to the European Crop Protection Association. Monsanto controls about 40 percent of the share of the global glyphosate market. Other manufacturers include Bayer AG, BASF Corp., and Syngenta, but Monsanto has taken the lead in defending glyphosate.
Even if the European Commission allows the registration to expire in December, it’s unlikely that European farmers won’t have access to glyphosate next year.
Member-states can request a “derogation,” or exemption, from European bans, said Zaruk. This happened as a result of the 2016 law that banned neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides linked to bee declines.
If the renewal fails, the commission is more likely to offer a proposal with a shorter renewal period or with additional restrictions, Zaruk said. An outright ban could trigger legal action or a dispute at the World Trade Organization.
The issue has fused anti-glyphosate activism in the U.S. and Europe. Members of the European Parliament have shown a keen interest in the trove of documents unveiled as part of a lawsuit against Monsanto brought by cancer victims and their families in a San Francisco federal court. The lawsuit is in discovery phase, with hearings scheduled for December.
The documents indicate a close relationship between the company and regulators working on glyphosate, as well as efforts to edit or even ghost-write scientific papers before publication. The European Parliament held a hearing on the so-called “Monsanto Papers” last week.
Zaruk said the opponents of glyphosate have drowned out the supporters. He has tried to raise money to bring Romanian farmers to Brussels to protest a possible lapse in glyphosate registration.
“The farmers need to come to Brussels,” he said. “The farmers don’t really have a voice in this debate.”
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