'Probable Carcinogen' Weed Killer Won't Be Banned in the EU Just Yet

Instead of a new 15-year license allowing glyphosate's use in the European Union, the controversial chemical is getting brief extension.
(Photo: Chafer Machinery/Flickr)
Jul 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What in the world to do about the world’s most popular weed killer? Not so long ago, the question of whether the European Union would extend its license for glyphosate would have been something of a foregone conclusion—a bureaucratic formality rubber-stamped as swiftly and unceremoniously as a joyless receptionist validating your parking stub. After all, the chemical that’s better known as the active ingredient in Monsanto’s blockbuster herbicide Roundup is one of the most heavily applied agrochemicals in history. It’s become such a staple of industrial agriculture around the world, how could its continued use not be approved?

Yet the EU came close to doing just that. With the license for glyphosate set to expire on June 30, a number of EU member states refused to vote for an extension, including France and Italy, with Germany abstaining. That left the European Commission scrambling to come up with a solution lest the license expire and automatically trigger a six-month phaseout of glyphosate in products across the EU.

So instead of what was supposed to be a 15-year extension of glyphosate’s EU license, Monsanto and other chemical makers were given a sort of bare-minimum 18-month extension—one that includes new restrictions, including greater scrutiny of the use of glyphosate prior to harvest (an off-label application for desiccating grain crops and potentially leading to residues on consumer products such as cereal) and minimizing its application around parks and playgrounds, according to Agence France-Presse.

It is yet another indication of the growing unease surrounding industrial agriculture’s runaway use of the chemical. While Monsanto likes to tout that glyphosate has been used “safely” for more than 40 years, that doesn’t account for the explosion in use over the past decade. A study released this year by the Environmental Working Group found that 75 percent of all glyphosate applied during the history of its use has been sprayed in just the last 10 years.

While the public has seemed more or less oblivious of this herbicide deluge, news last year that the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, had decided to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen appears to have made people sit up and take note. The EU’s 18-month extension is meant, in part, to give the union’s chemicals agency a chance to finish its report on the question of glyphosate’s cancer risk; the report isn’t expected until the end of 2017.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a simmering controversy continues in Washington, D.C., over the Environmental Protection Agency’s exact stance on the hot-button issue of glyphosate and cancer. A report in which the agency appeared to say the chemical was not likely carcinogenic was posted to the EPA’s website in May and marked “final,” only to disappear days later. Conservative farm belt lawmakers recently hauled EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to Capitol Hill to grill her about the missing report and to press for more information about the links between EPA staff and members of the IARC. (It seems worth noting that two EPA staff members are listed among the participants on the IARC monograph that deemed glyphosate a probable carcinogen.) McCarthy was vague about when the EPA’s glyphosate report might be (re)released, saying only that it would be “as soon as possible, possibly this fall.”

All this official dithering and delay would seem to do nothing to assuage a nervous public now waking up to glyphosate appearing to be all around it, turning up in trace amounts in a whole lot of unexpected food products and prompting lawsuits over its presence in products marketed as “all-natural.”

Too bad we couldn’t have had more such scrutiny before Big Ag’s use of glyphosate became a tidal wave.