European Union governments were split over a plan to keep glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, on the market for at least 12 more months pending a study of whether the chemical causes cancer. The stalemate at a meeting on Monday in Brussels hands the European Commission the power to decide on its own whether to extend the current license for glyphosate for an extra 12 to 18 months while Europe’s chemicals agency reviews the health risks. The EU authorization for glyphosate was originally due to expire last December and was prolonged for six months through June to give EU governments more time for deliberations. The commission had hoped to win majority support from national representatives to extend the current license until as late as the end of 2017 after they were divided in mid-May over a proposal to reauthorize glyphosate for nine years instead of the usual 15 years. That recommendation by the commission, the 28-nation EU’s regulatory arm, was a political compromise after environmental groups called for glyphosate to be banned.
The European Crop Protection Association representing glyphosate producers called the latest deadlock among EU governments “hugely disappointing,” while Greenpeace said “extending the glyphosate license would be like smelling gas and refusing to evacuate to check for a leak.”
Glyphosate is marketed by more than 40 companies under various trade names after being patented initially by Monsanto Co., whose U.S. patent expired in 2000, according to the European industry association. In Europe, the herbicide is used to tackle weeds in cereal crops, vineyards, and fruit and olive production. The main European agricultural-lobby group, Copa-Cogeca, has urged the EU to keep glyphosate on the market, saying the herbicide is a “a key part of farmers’ tool box” and grain, wine, fruit and olive production would otherwise be “seriously threatened.” The issue became so politically sensitive that the European Parliament weighed in two months ago, when the assembly cited the EU’s better-safe-than-sorry principle and urged glyphosate to be reauthorized for just seven years. The position of the EU Parliament, which has no decision-making role on the license question, helped prompt the commission to propose a renewal for nine years instead of 15 years.
Politically influential countries such as Germany and France balked even at that recommendation, leading the commission to retreat further by seeking a second prolongation of the current license. Needing the support of at least 16 EU governments representing a minimum 65 percent of the bloc’s population, the latest proposal failed to produce a result either way on Monday when Germany, France and Italy were among seven nations to abstain while 20 countries were in favor and Malta voted against, according to an EU official. Prolonging the current permit for as long as 18 months would cover the period during which the European Chemicals Agency is due to produce its review. EU Health and Food-Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis plans to discuss the way ahead at a commission meeting on Tuesday. The European Food Safety Authority concluded in November that glyphosate “is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.” The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization said in a joint report on May 16 that “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.”