Glyphosate: Ban or Renewal?

Friday 24 November 2017

As Member States will soon vote again on the European Commission's proposal for a five-year renewal of its marketing authorization, the glyphosate issue continues to heat up the minds of its detractors and supporters alike.

Without question, “glyphosate”, which divides to the extreme, is the hot topic of this month of November 2017. This herbicide, originally marketed by Monsanto in 1974 as an active ingredient in its "Roundup", has been highly contested since it was classified as "probably carcinogenic" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) on March 20, 2015[1]. However, the IARC - which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO) - finds itself strongly isolated on this result. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the WHO itself believe it “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet”[2]. But while December 15th, 2017 approaches, which implies the expiration  of marketing authorization of glyphosate in the EU, the debate gets heated.

On top of these various opinions issued by official institutions, there is the "Monsanto Papers" scandal. Prosecuted in the United States by nearly 3500 people, Monsanto was forced to disclose a whole series of internal documents that highlight a practice of "ghost writing". Considered a serious scientific fraud, this practice consists in the writing of articles by the firm's employees, which are then endorsed by well-known independent scientists who are heavily paid for this service. This still ongoing case has not failed to revive hostilities against the American agrochemical giant.

If the carcinogenic effect of glyphosate is strongly questioned, some Members of the EU Parliament (MEP) demand a ban of the substance in the name of the precautionary principle. Last October, the European Parliament also adopted a resolution opposing the Commission’s proposal for a 10 years renewal for the marketing authorization of glyphosate and calling for its phase out by 2022[3]. Vytenis Andriukaitis, Commissioner for Health & Food Safety, had previously stated that he was "tired of Member States hiding behind the European Commission" on the glyphosate issue[4] and on this occasion he stressed that it was up to them to decide whether or not to reauthorize the product. However, this is not the end of the debate since glyphosate is also criticized for its  potential negative impacts on the environment and is the subject of a European citizen initiative entitled "Ban glyphosate and Protect People and the Environment from Toxic Pesticides"[5]. Having obtained more than one million signatures, it was debated on November 20th in the European Parliament's Environment Committee.

At this occasion, Mika Leandro, representative of the Citizens' Committee, reaffirmed the will of European  citizens to obtain a ban and also asked for the Directive on the sustainable use of pesticides[6] to be strengthened. The Commissioner, for his part, insisted on the crucial role of pesticides in ensuring sufficient food production for the population, although he also recognized a general desire for a transition to a greener agriculture. “Of course, pesticides will never win any beauty contests.  And, I hope, they will never top the charts of public popularity. But they nevertheless play today a major role in ensuring we have adequate supplies of food.  Farmers need tools to combat pests and diseases that have the potential to severely reduce or even destroy entirely agricultural produce.”[7]

But against the ecological arguments for a ban, some argue that glyphosate is, on the contrary, not only environmentally friendly, but also necessary for certain agricultural practices to ensure soil conservation and soil quality. This is particularly the case for conservation agriculture, a practice in which tillage is reduced or eliminated - preventing erosion and limiting carbon emissions - but where herbicide remains necessary. This is also strongly criticized by some MEPs who do not consider this practice as a form of sustainable agriculture.


As no qualified majority was obtained during the vote of November 9 by the Member States on the proposal for a five years renewal, a new vote will be held on November 27[8]. In addition, a public consultation on pesticides is currently ongoing and will remain open until February 12, 2018[9]. However, regardless of the outcome of the vote, the debate over the toxicity of glyphosate for human health and/or for the environment, does not seem to be dying anytime soon.










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