Updated 6.25pm with Government statement

Malta was the only EU country to vote against a limited extension for the controversial weed-killer glyphosate during a last-ditch vote in Brussels earlier today.

The European Commission’s latest proposal of a 12 to 18 month extension of the licence for glyphosate, to allow time for a new scientific study into fears it could cause cancer, failed to win the backing of member states.

Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Austria and Portugal and Luxembourg all abstained on the vote, meaning the necessary qualified majority could not be reached. Only Malta voted against.

Graeme Taylor from the European Crop Protection Association said the outcome of today’s vote was “highly disappointing”.

“We share the sentiment voiced by Commissioner Andriukaitis last week when he said our decisions should remain based on science, not on political convenience,” she said.

“We frequently hear politicians proclaim Europe has the safest food safety system in the world: with this decision all they do is cast doubt on that system, and create fear and confusion amongst Europe’s consumers, the very people the system is designed to protect.”

The Commission has said it will now look into the issue of glyphosate approval during a meeting of commissioners on Tuesday.

Local environmental groups urged the government yesterday to hold its position against glyphosate, which is considered a “probable human carcinogen” by the World Health Organisation cancer agency, as the Commission tabled compromise options in the hopes of forcing a deal through.

The licence for the substance, the main ingredient of Monsanto’s agri-chemical Roundup Ready (accounting for €4.4 billion worth of revenue), expires on June 30.

An earlier 15-year proposed extension failed to garner the necessary qualified majority.

Environment minister José Herrera said last month that Malta would vote against the licence renewal, when the Commission tabled an initial compromise proposal of nine years.

The government had already changed its position from a planned abstention to planned support for re-authorisation, but announced its opposition in line with the precautionary principle cited by environmental groups, which states that potentially hazardous substances should not be used unless they are proven to be safe.

Speaking to the Times of Malta before today’s vote, John Portelli from the Malta Organic Food Movement urged the government to remember its commitments and support an immediate ban on glyphosate.

“Apart from the health risks, a limited extension would open the door to corporations suing the European community for billions of euros if and when TTIP [the controversial Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] is introduced,” he said.

Friends of the Earth Malta also said a complete ban was “the only sure way to protect our health and environment”.

Industry sources told this newspaper that should a deal on the limited extension fail to be reached, the Commission’s options would be to re-authorise glyphosate without member states’ agreement or allow the current authorisation to expire.

Should the latter option, considered more likely in the face of opposition from Italy, France and Germany, come about, all glyphosate products would have to be withdrawn from the European market within six months.

There is no currently scientific consensus on the safety of glyphosate. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers it a “probable carcinogen” although the classification does not consider the likelihood of cancer being caused under normal conditions.

The European Food Safety Agency has said glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer, but the scientific basis of the report has been heavily contested.

European farmers, meanwhile, have warned that, without glyphosate, sustainable, quality and safe EU food supplies could be under threat.

'Proof of our green credentials' - Environment Ministry

In a statement, the Environment Ministry said that there could be "no negotiation" when it came to issues which could be detrimental to people's health. 

"Despite various pressures, the Government remained consistent," the statement said. "The fact that our country was the only one to object to the proposal and didn't abstain like others did is further confirmation of this government's green credentials."

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