Europe’s food safety regulator found on Thursday that glyphosate, the controversial weedkiller, is safe to use in farming, in a win for the pesticide industry lobby that sparked outrage among green campaigners.
In a long-awaited verdict, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found no “critical areas of concern” for human, animal and environmental health from the use of glyphosate in agriculture.
That could herald a new lease on life for the herbicide that was invented by Monsanto, now part of Bayer, and has been the target of class-action litigation in the United States that has already cost the German chemicals-to-crops giant upward of €11 billion.
The chemical weedkiller is the most widely used pesticide in the world, but critics say it has been linked to cancer and can be harmful to wildlife. It was last approved for use in the EU in a highly controversial process in 2017, and the five-year license was extended for another 12 months last December.
Environmental groups denounced EFSA’s assessment as “shocking,” saying it was largely based on industry studies.
“The deeply flawed EU pesticide authorization system neglects a wealth of independent and peer-reviewed scientific studies that link glyphosate to severe health and environmental problems,” industry watchdog group Corporate Europe Observatory said in a statement.
“Many studies prove that glyphosate is genotoxic, neurotoxic, damages the gut microbiome and causes serious damage to soil, aquatic life and biodiversity.”
A “Stop Glyphosate” coalition of NGOs called on the European Commission and national governments to ban the chemical, noting that the five-year approval at the time, in 2017, was already considered a phase-out period by several EU countries, including France.
“As long as the evidence of potential cancer risks has not been refuted, only one decision is conceivable: The European Commission must take the precautionary principle into account and withdraw glyphosate’s approval,” said Jörg Rohwedder of Foodwatch International, citing the 2015 conclusions of the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, IARC, which classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Last year, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) concluded that glyphosate is not carcinogenic, but can cause serious eye damage and is toxic to aquatic life.
Safe to use in agriculture
Glyphosate can be safely used in agricultural practices such as pre-sowing, foliar spraying or post-harvest preservation, EFSA said. During its risk assessment, the EU’s food safety watchdog said it had identified unsafe uses in terms of ecotoxicology with “a high long-term risk to mammals,” but declined to reveal what those uses were until a later date.
The assessment was carried out by EFSA’s own scientists and regulatory scientists from France, the Netherlands, Hungary and Sweden. It included a review of the scientific literature, studies submitted by the companies seeking to re-register glyphosate, as well as other studies submitted during a public consultation, the agency said.
The conclusions are part of a wider process to decide whether the herbicide should remain on the market. They will help the European Commission and national authorities decide whether or not to ban the product. This process is expected to begin in October.
EFSA delayed publishing its findings last year due to the “unprecedented” amount of scientific input it received as part of the renewal process. Lawmakers in the European Parliament criticized the delay, citing concerns about a lack of transparency and the watchdog’s reliance on industry-led studies.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in commercial herbicide products such as Bayer’s Roundup. It was developed in the 1970s by Monsanto, which the German agrochemical giant acquired in 2018. With glyphosate’s patents expired since 2000, there are now countless generic versions on the market.
The request to renew the chemical’s EU license came from a group of companies collectively called the Glyphosate Renewal Group, which include Bayer, Syngenta and Nufarm.
The group said EFSA’s conclusion “lays the basis for the successful re-approval of glyphosate in the EU and is consistent with conclusions from leading health regulatory bodies from around the world for nearly 50 years.”
This story has been updated with reaction to the EFSA opinion.