It was supposed to be a routine thing. Relicensing the use of glyphosate in Member States of the European Union for another 15 years was not expected to meet with too much resistance.
As there was no qualified majority in a vote last month, the European Commission may now decide, although Member States are likely to stack up against the herbicide.
In March, four Member States – Italy, France, Holland and Sweden – raised concerns and a vote to reauthorise glyphosate was postponed. It was at this point that Sliema local councillor Michael Briguglio instructed the council’s landscaping contractor to stop using the herbicide in the locality’s public gardens.
Global use of glyphosate has increased from 3,200 to 825,000 tonnes since 1974. It is the main ingredient of Monsanto’s agri-chemical Roundup Ready, accounting for $5 billion worth of revenue. Genetically modified (GM) crop seeds, which generate a further $16 billion yearly, have been genetically engineered to withstand dousing with Roundup Ready.
Under EU law, the weed-killer can only be authorised for use if it has been established that there will be no immediate or delayed harmful effect on human health.
It is known that glyphosate kills not only unwanted weeds but all plants, as well as algae, bacteria and fungi – an unacceptable impact on biodiversity and ecosystems.
The herbicide has been detected in water, soil and food as well as in the human body. Exposure takes place through diet, home use or people coming into contact with sprayed areas.
The impact of this chemical on human health should not be underestimated. Exposures of E. coli and Salmonella bacteria to commercial formulations of glyphosate have been found to trigger a changed response to antibiotics.
In March 2015 a research arm of the United Nations World Health Organisation – the International Agency for Research on Cancer – declared glyphosate a probable human carcinogen. This rating of ‘reasonable suspicion’ is just one step down from the risk designation of ‘known carcinogen’. At the time there was already sufficient evidence to confirm it could without any doubt cause cancer in animals.
Eyebrows were raised when, in November 2015, a European Food Safety Authority review concluded to the contrary – that glyphosate was unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.
Environmental NGOs had been complaining for years about industry bias and revolving doors between EFSA and the genetic modification industry. After allegations of conflict of interest in 2012, the European Parliament slapped a six-month suspension on EFSA funding. The authority’s boards and committees were found to be riddled with International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) members. There followed a spate of resignations although it appears nothing much has changed.
Despite ILSI’s attempts to portray itself as a ‘neutral platform’ for experts, critics say the institute exists purely to lobby on behalf of the GM industry for a more lax regulatory regime to maximise profits.
In April, five out of Malta’s six MEPs voted for a seven-year extension of the glyphosate licence in what was seen by many as a disappointing compromise. On the plus side, there were to be restrictions on some uses of glyphosate, but one MEP (Miriam Dalli – SDP) held firm on an outright ban.
The European Parliament’s committee for environment, public health and food safety put a motion for a resolution on the table, calling on the Commission not to renew approval of glyphosate. Parliament also asked the Commission to rapidly ensure an independent review of the classification of glyphosate in relation to hormone-disruption.
Review of the safety of glyphosate by scientists receiving money from industry is a clear conflict of interest
A call was made in Brussels last month for the EFSA to disclose all scientific evidence used in its arguments to push glyphosate through the voting process.
The Swiss-based Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health criticised EFSA’s report for including cherry-picked data from unpublished studies submitted by industry.
Then an article by Arthur Neslen in the May 17 edition of The Guardian revealed that the chairman of the UN joint Food and Agriculture Organisation/ World Health Organisation meeting on pesticide residues is also vice president of the ILSI, which received a six-figure donation from Monsanto. Being involved in a review of the safety of glyphosate while receiving money from industry is a clear conflict of interest.
In Malta, the Environmental Landscapes Consortium confirms that in the vast majority of localities where it has maintenance agreements, glyphosate has never been used, or “if used in the past it has been discontinued”. A spokesman agreed that weeding by hand is an alternative that can more safely replace spraying.
According to the Malta Organic Agriculture Movement, when ELC use poisonous chemicals in public spaces “they are breaking the law from a health and safety point of view”.
Malta’s National Action Plan for Sustainable Use of Pesticides (2013-2018), issued by Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority, requires that:
“The public, with special reference to vulnerable groups, should be kept informed at all times with accurate and balanced information relating to pesticides for the public, in particular with regard to the risks and the potential acute and chronic effects for human health, non-target organisms and the environment arising from their use, and the use of non-chemical alternatives.”
The public sees little evidence of this on the part of the authority, which has a duty to keep citizens informed as it had promised:
“MCCAA will liaise with government entities such as local councils and schools to promote awareness for the public and will also participate in fairs, campaigns and media programmes to provide the public with such information.
“The latter will also include understanding of signs to be placed in areas treated with pesticides and competitions for children. Special focus will be given to the safe handling of pesticides with particular reference to vulnerable groups.”
While the pesticides plan brings a sense of false security, none of the above measures are visible, if at all present.
Environment Minister Jose Herrera has asked the local authority to make Malta’s position against glyphosate clear to the EU Commission if the renewal bid goes to appeal. The Commission could go over the heads of Member States to reauthorise glyphosate as a draft measure but European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker appears to oppose this route.
If Germany does not change its current position of abstaining from the vote the Commission could simply do nothing and let the June 30 licensing deadline expire.
European Ombudsman warns the European Commission not to evade its responsibility to ensure protection of human health, animal health and the environment from glyphosate.
Germany’s Federal Environment Agency declares that substances found to be ‘probably’ carcinogenic should not be authorised by EU law.
Greens/European Free Alliance group call the European Commission’s proposal to continue to allow use of glyphosate for 15 more years “scandalous”.
FAO/WHO chairman linked to industry donations. Vote to re-approve glyphosate postponed again.
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