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Roundup row turns the EU spotlight on pesticides

A special committee is investigating the licensing procedure after serious questions over corporate lobbying on glyphosate. By David Burrows.

This month, PEST, a special committee brought together by the European Parliament will meet for the first time. Its job over the next nine months is to delve into the murky world of the EU’s authorisation procedure for pesticides. Here’s what’s happened and why.

CONTROVERSIAL CHEMICAL. The committee is a response to concerns raised about the risk posed by glyphosate – the herbicide mostly sold as Roundup by the agri-tech giant Monsanto. It’s a controversial chemical, not least because of the tension between the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer – the former concluded that the substance is “unlikely” to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans, while the latter said it probably is.

GLYPHOSATE-FREE LABELS. Footprint covered the initial saga here and some food companies are already erring on the side of caution – the ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, which is owned by Unilever, has committed to remove all glyphosate-tainted ingredients from its products, according to the Guardian (though a previous statement on the company’s website didn’t quite go that far). This followed research showing that 13 of 14 tubs tested in the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands had traces of the weedkiller. The amounts weren’t likely to be a threat to human health (traces in bread and breakfast cereals have been far higher), but some have said that going glyphosate-free could become a necessity for labels as further controversy emerges.

A DARK DAY. After months of wrangling and voting, glyphosate finally had its marketing licence renewed by EU member states for five years in November 2017. “Today’s vote shows that when we all want to, we are able to share and accept our collective responsibility in decision-making,” said the EU health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis. He was looking on the bright side. The decision upset quite a few people: 1.3 million reportedly signed a petition for the chemical to be banned. The Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament called it a “dark day for consumers, farmers and the environment”. Franziska Achterberg, the EU food policy director of Greenpeace, said: “The people who are supposed to protect us from dangerous pesticides have failed to do their jobs and betrayed the trust Europeans place in them.”

DODGY DEALING? There was a feeling the EU and its regulators had been swayed by big business. In September 2017, the Guardian revealed that the EFSA’s recommendation that glyphosate is safe had sections “copied and pasted” from analyses by Monsanto. An investigation by EUobserver in May last year raised similar concerns – a study written by Monsanto and later attributed to academics, as well as another study “redesigned” with the help of the ag-tech firm’s employees, were “relied on by EFSA when it evaluated the safety of glyphosate in 2015 as part of the EU licence renewal process”.

TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT. The EFSA’s close ties with industry have long been scrutinised, but with little impact. In February, the Pesticide Action Network published research showing that 90% of EU methods of risk assessment for pesticides were designed or promoted by the chemical industry. According to a report by the campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory in June 2017, 46% of the 211 experts on 10 of the regulator’s scientific panels had a financial conflict of interest. “My problem is that they pretend to be independent from the food industry, but they’re not,” explained Martin Pigeon, the group’s researcher and campaigner on agribusiness issues at the time. “You can spend 10 minutes looking at a panel and come up with a scandal.”

SCRUTINY INTENSIFIES. And glyphosate is now threatening to be the biggest. The EFSA has long maintained the issue has become politicised but it’s clear that MEPs feel there’s no smoke without fire. The touchpaper – or rather papers – have been lit. The so-called “Monsanto Papers” are a pile of internal emails, presentations and memos that reportedly show the company’s strategies for whitewashing glyphosate. “You cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen,” a Monsanto scientist reportedly says in an email. “We have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement.” MEPs said the documents “shed doubt on the credibility of some studies used in the EU evaluation on glyphosate safety”. And so PEST was born.

BIGGER PICTURE. The new committee will “analyse whether the positive reports on glyphosate by EFSA and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) were influenced by its developer”. But it will look further than just Monsanto and glyphosate. Under scrutiny will also be: the authorisation procedure for pesticides in the EU; potential failures in how substances are scientifically evaluated and approved; and the role of the European Commission in renewing the glyphosate licence. There will also be an analysis of whether the relevant agencies need to be “beefed up” to ensure the authorisation procedure is “based only on published, peer-reviewed and independent studies commissioned by competent public authorities”. The centre-right EPP, the largest group in the European Parliament, told the environmental news site ENDS Europe that it has “worked to make the mandate as broad and objective as possible in order to restore the confidence of EU citizens”. That’s a big ask.