THE FUTURE of the world’s most popular herbicide, glyphosate, in Europe is on tenterhooks, after the European Union (EU) Parliament passed a resolution to phase out the chemical by 2022 due to safety concerns.
This move comes as a blow for advocates of the herbicide as it contradicts the position held by the European Commission (EC), the EU’s bureaucratic arm, which was pushing for registration for glyphosate until 2027.
Complicating the matter further is the fact the Parliamentary vote is non-binding.
In the interim, if glyphosate is to remain a legal product within the EU, an authorisation is required before the chemical’s current EU licence expires on December 15.
The EC was due to vote on a proposal to relicense glyphosate on October 25, but that process came to a grinding halt in light of the Parliament’s shock decision.
Another EC meeting is scheduled for mid-November.
The EC failed in a push to re-register glyphosate for a further 15 years in June of last year, instead pushing through a stop-gap 18 month extension while the herbicide’s safety was reviewed.
In this time there has been a big public push against the product, with a petition spearheaded by Greenpeace to ban the product gaining a whopping 1.3 million signatures from EU residents.
However, the EC remains committed to gaining an extension for the use of glyphosate, with most reports suggesting the organisation is working towards a five-year registration.
Should it not be successful and glyphosate be phased out, the EU will work on a four-year progam to end the use of glyphosate-based products, meaning it would no longer be available from 2022.
Whether or not there is a public health risk from glyphosate is an equally murky debate, with contradictory advice coming from large global agencies, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In 2015, the WHO cancer agency declared glyphosate a ‘probable’ carcinogen, however, the WHO division for pesticide residues found the product to be safe.
The European Chemicals Agency and the European Food Safety Authority also say the pesticide is safe for use.
While at face value a decision to ban glyphosate use in the EU could have positive impacts for the Australian cropping industry in terms of less competition for the herbicide and potentially lower production from one of its major competitors, officials from the Aussie crop sector are nervous.
“It is definitely something we have to watch,” said Grain Producers Australia chairman Andrew Weidemann.
He said Australian farmers would be in dire straits if Australian regulators were to follow the EU example and ban the product.
“Such a ban in Australia would be catastrophic for our cropping sector.”
He said it appeared the consumer backlash in the EU had led the Parliament to its decision at the expense of science.
“It seems European farmers are suffering the consequences of political process, farmers here would be aghast if this kind of influence from lobby groups could impede our farming systems in time.”
In the immediate future, Mr Weidemann said GPA would be seeking clarification as to whether a ban, should it take place, would have any impact on Australian agricultural exports to the EU, which is a major market for products such as canola.
Tony Russell, of the Grains Industry Market Access Forum, said it would be likely that the EU would have zero tolerance for glyphosate residues in grain imports if it banned glyphosate.
However, he said the major issue would be whether that meant no residues, which are usually found from a late season use as a crop desiccant or a declaration no glyphosate has been used.
“As with all deals of this size the devil will really be in the detail,” he said.
Matthew Cossey, chief executive of Australian crop protection peak body CropLife, said the EU Parliament decision was a triumph of politics over facts.
“Independent European chemical regulators and agencies including the European Chemical Agency, the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues, the European Food Safety Authority and Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment have also concluded assessments of glyphosate and confirmed its safety.”
"The European Union needs to back its own regulators and independent advice. You cannot allow warped short term political agendas to be making what are decisions that should be based on independent evidence and scientific processes."
He said he was concerned for Australia’s grain export program.
"If the EU were to make such a ludicrous decision to ban their own farmers’ use of glyphosate, then not only would it destroy agricultural productivity in Europe but it would cause a significant trading problem for Australia.”