Glyphosate is one of the most commonly used herbicides in the world, and over the past decades has been used more and more frequently.
And yet, its impact on human health and the environment is unclear. There are serious concerns, but we carry on using it regardless. To me, it is clear that before using any chemicals, we should be fully aware of the effects they may have on human health or the environment. This has not been the case with glyphosate.
From an agricultural point of view, glyphosate is said to save the current yields. But what do we actually know about the effect is has on microorganisms in the soil, which, at the end of the day, are vital for good growing conditions?
I don’t believe we know nearly enough. We should not further ‘chemicalise’ the environment before gathering all the facts. There could be long-term effects which we cannot even begin to imagine. This is a dangerous approach.
Also, spreading glyphosate ourselves, as ordinary consumers, into the environment, exposes us to a potentially dangerous substance. It also exposes our children and pets to a possibly dangerous chemical.
I trust the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)’s assessment, in March 2015, that glyphosate is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. To me, this wording is strong enough to justify a ban on glyphosate.
Meanwhile, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) concluded that, “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the evidence does not support classification with regard to its carcinogenic potential”.
This counter evidence is just not convincing enough for me. As long as there is insufficient evidence demonstrating that glyphosate is definitely non-carcinogenic – if ever that turns out to be the case – the precautionary principle must be applied, meaning glyphosate must be banned until we have solid proof that it does not pose a risk to our health or the environment.
Glyphosate is only one chemical component in the huge pool of chemicals we use in agriculture. There are many different biocides and plant protection products which are potentially harmful in some way to human health and the environment.
The European Commission’s efforts at better law making under REFIT is also linked to revising regulations on biocides and plant protection products. Under this initiative, the Commission now sets out the criteria to identify endocrine disruptors. Both regulations are underpinned by the precautionary principle, but the Commission’s proposals are not.
The purpose of the biocidal regulation is to improve the free movement of biocidal products within the EU, while ensuring a high level of protection of both human and animal health and the environment. The plant protection products regulation also aims to ensure a high level of protection while safeguarding the competitiveness of agriculture in the EU.
In designing both pieces of legislation, a choice was made to give priority to protecting human and animal health, as well as the environment.
The current biocidal regulation is clear in its wording: “active substances which are considered as having endocrine disrupting properties that may cause adverse effects in humans shall not be approved”.
This prohibition is hazard-based, covering also substances that may cause adverse effects. The same clarity applies for the plant protection products regulation: “an active substance shall only be approved if it is not considered to have endocrine disrupting properties that may cause adverse effects in humans”.
All this clarity and clear precaution has vanished from the Commission proposals. Changing the wording from “may cause adverse effects” to “known to cause” means stepping away from hazard-based prohibition and the precautionary principle.
The same applies for the plant protection product regulation; “it is not considered to have endocrine disrupting properties that may cause adverse effects in humans” has turned into “it is not identified as having endocrine disrupting properties with respect to humans”.
Sensible precaution has been replaced with warning people only if damage is 100 per cent proven. The Commission’s proposed revision is questionable for two reasons. First, the proposals weaken the level of environmental and human and animal health protection. This is extremely dangerous.
We must always aim higher when it comes to health and environmental protection. Second, the Commission is – once again – stepping on legislators’ toes. I am happy to see that some glyphosate products are already being withdrawn from market (ones with POEA additives), and expect that by the end of 2017 the ban on glyphosate will be complete.