In less than two years, Malta has gone from supporting the continued use of the controversial weedkiller glyphosate to part of a group of 10 EU countries seeking to block plans to extend its licence, amid fears it may cause cancer. 

Glyphosate, which is considered a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organisation cancer agency, has been the subject of a pitched battle in recent years, between environmental activists concerned over the human health impacts and the farming industry which insists glyphosate is safe and that there are no viable alternatives to its use.

The herbicide is an ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, a popular weedkiller across the globe. More than 1.3 million people have signed a European citizen initiative asking for a full ban.

Last week, in a meeting of national experts in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed, the European Commission put off a vote on a new 10-year licence for glyphosate – after the current licence expires in December – when it became clear the required majority would not be found.

Malta was one of 10 countries – including Italy, France and Belgium – to oppose re-licencing in an informal vote, and Environment Minister José Herrera said the country would retain its position when a formal vote was taken, on the basis of scientific studies and the concerns raised by eNGOs.

“Proposals which clearly have a detrimental effect to our environment and health will not find our support in spite of any economic advantages brought by the use of herbicides such as glyphosate,” Mr Herrera said.

A day earlier, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for the substance to be phased out altogether by 2022.

“Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used herbicide, including in the EU,” Labour MEP Miriam Dalli, who has been deeply involved in the issue as the S&D group environment coordinator, told The Sunday Times of Malta. “There are conflicting studies on the carcinogenity and genotoxicity of the substance but the fact is that there are serious doubts on its safety.”

The lobby by the industry is very strong

In Malta, glyphosate is used in agriculture and in limited quantities by the Environmental Landscaping Consortium (ELC).

According to NSO figures from 2007, 22.6 kilogrammes of glyphosate were used on crops in Malta that year, covering an area of 43.2 hectares. More than half was applied by potato farmers, with the rest applied in fields where vines, forage, vegetables and orchard fruit were grown.

More recent figures could not be obtained, but a government agriculture official said its use remained widespread.

There has been little research into the extent to which people are exposed. Tests by Friends of the Earth Malta in 2013 found that nine of the 10 people tested had traces of glyphosate in their urine, backing up similar findings in other countries, although the small sample size limited the study’s impact.

Maltese government studies have found no traces in fruit and vegetable samples but the substance is so pervasive that a recent study from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and two Dutch laboratories found that 45 per cent of Europe’s topsoil contains residues.

Dr Dalli said that amid concerns over its safety, its use should be discontinued, although the farming industry should be given time to develop sustainable alternatives and adapt to new systems that are not harmful to health and the environment.

“I believe that we need to incentivise the industry to look for less harmful alternatives. If the industry has no incentive to invest in new technology, nothing will change,” she said.

“By simply giving the Commission the power to renew this substance, we would only be dragging our feet on the issue. It would mean that time would go by, nothing happens, and 10 years down the line we would have another request for yet another renewal.”

With no decision last week, the future of glyphosate will now go down to the wire, with the next meeting to make a decision likely to be on November 9, with the Commission proposing a shorter, five-year extension in an attempt to secure a deal.

Dr Dalli acknowledged the challenge but remained hopeful that glyphosate use could be phased out.  “The reality is that the lobby by the industry is very strong and the industry will do anything in its power to influence the decision-making,” she said. “But we will not stop exercising pressure for things to change.”

Is glyphosate safe?

There is no scientific consensus on the safety of glyphosate, and studies have been mired in controversy.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an organ of the WHO, considers it a “probable human carcinogen”, but studies by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) both concluded that its use is safe.

The reliability of the EU agency studies have since been called into question, however, particularly after the release of leaked internal documents from Monsanto.

“The EU agencies, which carry out these reviews, are completely dependent on the studies presented to them by the industry itself,” Dr Dalli said.

“It was shocking to discover, for example, eight instances where increases in tumours as a response following glyphosate exposure were not included in such assessments.”

In a further twist, however, Reuters revealed this week that the IARC may itself have dismissed and edited findings from its review that were at odds with its final conclusion that the chemical probably causes cancer.

Can Malta ban glyphosate of its own accord?

Despite the government’s opposition to glyphosate at EU level, it has said it will not pursue a national ban in Malta unless the EU makes that decision.

Environment Minister José Herrera had indicated in July 2016 that the government was in the process of implementing such a ban, a statement which was picked up by environmental groups and media organisations worldwide.

However, he said in January that he had misspoken, and that Malta could not impose a ban without EU backing. The government did ban formulations of glyphosate that included the surfactant POE-tallowamine, which is already banned at EU level.

However, Maltese environmentalists have insisted the government has the legal power to ban glyphosate regardless of the EU stance, as it is Member States that decide whether or not to allow a pesticide on their local market once it is authorised by the EU, based on their own safety evaluations.

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