The controversial weedkiller glyphosate has been deemed safe for public use by the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) after months of controversy over its licensing.

The agency was asked for its assessment after conflicting reports from different scientific bodies. Glyphosate is considered a “probable human carcinogen” by the World Health Organisation cancer agency (IARC), but had been cleared for use by the European Food Safety Agency.

Malta announced last July that it had decided to ban the substance, an ingredient in the Monstano herbicide Roundup. But Environment Minister José Herrera backtracked this year, saying the country would continue to oppose glyphosate in discussions, but would follow the EU line and wait for further studies.

The agency stated on Wednesday that “the available scientific evidence did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, as a mutagen or as toxic for reproduction”, based on “the human evidence and the weight of the evidence of all the animal studies reviewed”.

IARC is the gold standard of cancer evaluation

The decision was welcomed by industry groups but slammed by the environmental lobby. Greenpeace had previously accused the ECHA committee of conflict of interest, as several of its members had undertaken consultancy work for chemical firms, as well as relying on unpublished scientific studies provided by the industry.

Génon K. Jensen of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) said the decision was a setback for cancer prevention.

“We expect that in the future, the IARC will be recognised as having been right. But meanwhile, Europe is set to give glyphosate the green light so public health will lose out on an important opportunity for cancer prevention. Cancer rates can be brought down by taking hazardous chemicals off the market,” she said.

“IARC is the gold standard of cancer evaluation. It is hard to see that the EU’s own institutions come to such a starkly different result: ECHA’s committee did not even give glyphosate the ranking of a ‘possible carcinogen’. This is the sort of contradiction that feeds public suspicion about the reliability of EU scientific agencies’ opinions.”

But Graeme Taylor of the European Crop Protection Agency said science had prevailed.

“Glyphosate is not carcinogenic. We expect the European Commission to move swiftly with the registration process for the substance in the EU and grant a 15-year approval – the same approval that was originally suggested by the EC before the substance became the subject of a political and emotional debate rather than a scientific one.”

Environment Minister José Herrera said: “It is important that we base our policy decisions on such matters on scientific basis. Malta firmly believes in the precautionary principle, therefore I have been looking forward to the ECHA decision.”

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