EUROPEAN BUREAU CHIEF, ROME
PUBLISHED DECEMBER 1, 2017 UPDATED DECEMBER 1, 2017
After the spring election of the pro-Europe French PresidentEmmanuel Macron, the euro zone's return to steady, if not robust, growth andthe end of fears that bailed-out Greece would sink under the Aegean waves, theEuropean project seemed to spring back to life this year, in spite of Brexit.
That is what the cheery headlines suggested. Underneath, theEuropean Union was as dysfunctional as ever and if you still need to beconvinced of this sorry reality, look no further than the glyphosateboondoggle. Glyphosate is the world's most widely used herbicide. It wasinvented by Monsanto in the 1970s, stops plants from making certain proteinsthat are needed for growth and may or may not cause cancer (Germany's Bayer isbuying Monsanto for $66-billion U.S.).
For more than two years, the efforts to renew the chemical'sEU market access, or terminate it, have pitted the EU states against each otherand created an atmosphere of hysteria that has gone beyond the realms ofscience into the political front lines, where it was lobbed around like a livegrenade. The glyphosate saga even divided the cabinet of German ChancellorAngela Merkel. The outcome – the renewal this week of glyphosate's marketaccess for a mere five years, over the objections of France and Italy – pleasedno one. How typically European.
The European edition of the glyphosate story, in effect,began 17 years ago, when Monsanto's patent on the chemical, the activeingredient in its ubiquitous Roundup weed-killer line, expired. The pricesdropped as the Chinese and other agrochemical producers entered the glyphosatemarket, and farmers across Europe became addicted to the product. They reallyhad no choice. If they abandoned glyphosate, or used less-effective herbicides,farm yields would fall, prices would rise and imports of cheaper agriculturalproducts from countries that continued to use it, like Canada and the UnitedStates, would increase.
As glyphosate became indispensable, concerns about itssafety in humans, in farm animals and in wildlife intensified. In 2015, thedebate over its safety, or lack thereof, raged when the World HealthOrganization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), classifiedglyphosate as "probably carcinogenic." But "probably"didn't seal the chemical's fate, since many other studies and reviews did notreach the same conclusion.
In 2016, the European Food Safety Authority said thatglyphosate is "unlikely" to cause cancer. At the same time, a reviewconducted by the World Health Organization itself said, "Glyphosate isunlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through thediet." Earlier this year, the European Chemicals Agency said glyphosatewas toxic to aquatic life but "that the available scientific evidence didnot meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen." Researchersat the U.S. National Institutes of Health this month "observed noassociations between glyphosate use and overall cancer risk" and Canada'sPest Management Regulatory Agency had a similar conclusion.
Still, faced with a pile of reports that said glyphosatecould not be considered a carcinogen, and one report that it might be, the EUwent into political spasms that triggered uninformed claims and counterclaimsthat nearly ended glyphosate's use in the European market.
In June, 2016, the EU's member states delayed a finaldecision on reauthorizing glyphosate's use. In the usual can-kicking exercise,the EU extended the herbicide's licence for 18 months, and when that date came,the glyphosate vote was delayed once again. In the meantime, the EU parliamentvoted to ban glyphosate by 2022. The vote was non-binding, but it put pressureon the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, to recommend a shortenedlicence renewal for the chemical. The EC had been calling for a 15-yearrenewal, later reduced to a 10-year renewal.
With the renewal process in disarray, various countries tooksides and farm groups went into open revolt, threatening lawsuits if glyphosatewere to be banned. The biggies were divided. France and Italy, bothagricultural powerhouses, opposed the glyphosate licence renewal. Germany wasundecided. As the EU's dominant economy, Germany's vote could make or breakglyphosate.
Why was Germany sitting on the fence? Again, the answer waspolitics, not science. After Ms. Merkel's poor showing in Germany's Septembergeneral election, the Chancellor entered coalition talks with the FreeDemocratic Party and Green Party, which had opposed glyphosate's use for years.If Ms. Merkel wanted the Greens in her coalition, Germany's endorsement ofglyphosate's renewal would be a non-starter, hence, apparently, Germany's planto abstain from the vote.
Germany changed its mind at the last minute and broke thedeadlock on Nov. 27 by voting in favour of glyphosate's renewal. By then thecoalition talks had collapsed, meaning Ms. Merkel's cabinet was free to endorseglyphosate. But even that turned into a farce. Germany's agriculture minister,Christian Schmidt, acted alone in ordering German officials to vote in favourof glyphosate's renewal. Mr. Schmidt consulted neither Ms. Merkel nor theenvironment minister, Barbara Hendricks, who opposed the renewal.
The vote endorsed glyphosate's renewal for a mere fiveyears. The available reviews and studies suggest it should have been renewedfor 10 or 15 years. Still, glyphosate could be a health hazard. As the BritishMedical Journal recently pointed out, most of the science used in the riskassessment to support glyphosate safety in the United States was conducted morethan 30 years ago. The science needs to be updated, to be sure. But unless thechemical is proven unsafe, it was reckless of the EC and EU to risk triggeringa crisis among farmers across Europe by threatening glyphosate's demise.Politics, not science, dominated the agenda and exposed the shambles that thedecision-making process in the EU has become. Is it any wonder that trust inthe EU is low?