The European Union must exit the pesticide treadmill: time to ban glyphosate

22 March 2016 Editorial
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Resistance from member states and mobilized citizens has postponed renewed authorization in the European Union of the toxic herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup and the world's most widely-used herbicide. On March 8, the EU's Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed postponed a decision when Italy joined France, the Netherlands and Sweden in opposing renewal. But a vote will take place in May, and additional pressure is needed to ensure that the European Commission does not cut a deal with the corporate agrochemical giants which would keep Europe locked into the deadly spiral of increasing pesticide applications for another fifteen years.

In March last year, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a report which classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans." The IARC cited evidence in Canada, Sweden and the USA linking workers' occupational exposure to glyphosate to increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (blood cancers) and "DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals, and in human and animal cells in vitro", among other risks.

Monsanto and the agrochemical companies immediately denounced the report and revved up their lobby machine. In November, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) - on the basis of unpublished reports prepared by the industry for Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment - officially rejected the IARC's conclusions, paving the way for renewal when the current authorization expires this June.

The IARC report noted that glyphosate has been detected "in air during spraying, in water, and in food" and "in the blood and urine of agricultural workers, indicating absorption".  A recent investigation by the Heinrich Böll Foundation involving over 2,000 Germans in rural and urban areas detected glyphosate in the urine of 99.6% of those tested, in some cases at levels 42 times higher than what is legally permissible for drinking water. So ubiquitous is glyphosate that it has been detected in feminine hygiene products, most recently in France, where products ostensibly manufactured from organic cotton were recalled in February.

Since it was introduced commercially in 1974, an estimated 8.6 billion kilos have been injected into the environment, and its use has increased dramatically following the commercialization of Monsanto's 'Roundup Ready' crops which are genetically modified to resist glyphosate applications.

All this, and evidence identifying glyphosate and its commercial formulations as endocrine disrupters which under EU law should be prohibited from being marketed in 'crop protection' applications, has not stopped the European Commission and its agencies from rushing to authorize another 15 years of glyphosate use.

Continued authorization would not only place lives at risk in Europe; it would boost efforts to undo Sri Lanka's recent ban on glyphosate and derail momentum towards banning or seriously restricting glyphosate in Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador and elsewhere.

The unrestrained use of toxic agrochemicals, including the 'prophylactic' use of chemicals like the neonicotinoids which are decimating wild pollinators, has led to a proliferation of resistant 'superweeds' and 'superbugs' demanding increasing applications of increasingly toxic chemical formulations. On March 8, the same day the Standing Committee was to have made its decision on glyphosate, the French Ministry of Agriculture released figures showing a steady increase in pesticide use in recent years, with a particularly sharp increase of 9.4% in 2014 (the last year for which figures are available) over the previous year.

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Europe needs a strategy for exiting the pesticide treadmill. The alternative to glyphosate is not paraquat, which annually kills some 40,000 people, mostly agricultural workers, or enhanced formulations like Dow Chemical's 'Enlist' weed control system, based on seeds which have been genetically modified to resist a pesticide formulation combining glyphosate with the highly toxic 2,4-D - the active ingredient in the US military's Agent Orange used to destroy food and forests in Vietnam. The alternative is comprehensive support for a safer, saner food system which does not put agricultural workers in the front lines of exposure.  

Maximum pressure must now be applied to the European Commission, EFSA and the Standing Committee to ensure that glyphosate is banned in the EU and consistent resources are made available to promote transition to non-chemical food production which sustains and enriches, rather than destroys, the food system on which we all depend.