The future for glyphosate use in the EU is set to be decided by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) this summer. Glyphosate, which is used in non-selective herbicides to prevent the growth of a range of weed species in cultivated crops, has been a source of heated debate over its safety and necessity for some time.
The substance is currently approved for use in the EU until December 2023. However, in July of this year the EFSA is expected to publish a conclusion on the safety of glyphosate. Based on this, the European Commission will draft legislative proposals for its renewal, or non-renewal, in the EU.
Industry and NGOs are making their cases for and against its use. The Glyphosate Renewal Group (GRG), a consortium of eight companies including Bayer and Nufarm is seeking the routine renewal of glyphosate approval by EU authorities. The GRG claims it is working to ensure that all relevant, peer reviewed research is presented to the EFSA to assist in its deliberations.
At a briefing held in London this week, Sunita Bohra, chair of the regulatory working group of the GRG, explained that what is considered one of the most comprehensive scientific dossiers had been submitted to the EFSA.
‘The dossier runs to more than 180,000 pages and we have included in excess of 1,500 studies,’ Bohra said. ‘We have ensured that everything submitted meets criteria set out by the EFSA.’ Mindful of public scrutiny, the GRG stresses that transparency is a central part of its remit and as such has provided access to the data it has submitted.
Industry argues that climate change, the war in Ukraine and ongoing food insecurity mean that glyphosate must remain part of the farmer’s toolbox. Removing the substance would have a huge impact on key crops, leading to declines in yields of 8-18% in wheat, the GRG argues.
However, Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN), a network of more than 600 NGOs, institutions, and individuals in more than 60 countries working to minimise negative effects of pesticides, says that there are alternative ways to manage weeds and maintain food security.
‘Several studies underline that the phase-out of glyphosate does not have any significant effect on the cost of food production,’ said Gergely Simon, PAN Ecotoxicity, Pesticide Residues in the Environment & Risks from Formulated Pesticide Products – Senior Chemicals Officer.
‘Using the price and hunger argument is a common tactic from the agribusiness. When the European Commission first restricted neonicotinoids in 2013 to protect bees, agribusiness claimed we would face up to 50% reduction in yields, with rising food prices. No reduction in yield was observed and prices remained stable.’ Simon added.
Releasing the third edition of its report: Weed Management: Alternatives to the use of Glyphosate, PAN says: ‘The agroindustry sector claims there are no viable alternatives, the new edition of the PAN Europe report shows that ending glyphosate is not only necessary but entirely possible.’
While agribusiness stands by the science related to glyphosate and the evidence provided in its dossier, it sees that there are opportunities to using technology to mitigate any risk as well as develop new methods for controlling weeds.
‘It may be that we will have to see a change in conditions of use for glyphosate. But we are also looking at how farmers could use new innovative approaches, such as digital technologies to assist in more targeted applications,’ said Christian Haschka, Chair of the Public Affairs Group of the GRG.
‘The discussion is certainly more open on the benefits of new technologies and there could be some potential to create agreement in this area,’ Haschka added.
The GRG also stressed that research and development to create new molecules and methods for weed management remains a priority. ‘The trouble is many developments that we are looking at now could take 10 to 15 years to reach the market. The testing and approvals process is a very long one,’ said Bohra.
While alternatives are welcomed, Gergely points out that there are examples of many farmers already working without the use of glyphosate. But he also concedes that many molecules used in crop protection have persisted because they can make the complex task of farming easier.
‘It is very sad to observe that the farming unions prefer adopting a conservative approach that keeps the farmers in a state of dependence to pesticides that intoxicate them, their families and their neighbours, rather than taking a positive approach and helping farmers transition towards low-input farming practices,’ Gergely said.
The GRG stresses that the science indicates the efficacy and safety of glyphosate. ‘From the scientific perspective there is no reason not to reapprove [glyphosate]. We know that a wide range of farmers, including regenerative farmers use it,’ said Utz Klages, Spokesperson Bayer Crop Science Division.
However, discussion over safety remains, and there are concerns that some EU Member States may position themselves not to reapprove glyphosate’s use. ‘Science is getting lost in the process,’ Klages said.