05 April 2016

Glyphosate is one of the most widely applied herbicides in the world. The Soil Association describes it as the most heavily used weed-killer in history. It is relied on by farmers, foresters, highways authorities, local authorities and gardeners as an effective way to kill grasses and weeds.

We reported in earlier briefings that in March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer ('IARC') a specialist agency of the World Health Organisation, had made a finding that glyphosate was 'probably carcinogenic to humans'.

In September 2015 the California Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Health Hazard Assessment 'OEHHA' issued a notice of intent to list glyphosate as 'known to the state' to cause cancer. This would have triggered health warnings to consumers under California's drinking water laws. This drew a furious response from Monsanto, makers of the glyphosate product RoundupTM, which has filed a lawsuit against OEHHA alleging that its actions were unconstitutional.

Meanwhile in Europe, an equally furious political and regulatory argument has erupted over glyphosate. The European Food Safety Authority ('EFSA') ruled in November 2015 that glyphosate was 'unlikely' to be carcinogenic. This prompted 96 scientists, mostly involved in the IARC report, to insist that it was.

The European Commission moved to a proposal to renew the licence for a further 15 years from June 2016, but 2 million people signed a petition against it, and reservations by Italy, France, Sweden and the Netherlands resulted in postponement of the expected re-licensing vote, raising questions about glyphosate's licence for continued use in the EU from June 2016.

On 12 April 2016, the European Parliament voted to recommend that the European Commission should renew the EU market approval for glyphosate for 7 years rather than 15 years. The Parliament recommended that glyphosate should not be approved for 'non-professional' uses, and that the European Food Safety Authority should immediately disclose all the scientific evidence used as the basis for its classification. 

MEPs described as 'unacceptable' the use of glyphosate in the farming practice. They described it as 'green burndown', killing off plant growth to facilitate harvesting, citing concerns about increased human exposure. Finally, MEPs considered that glyphosate should not be approved for use in or close to public parks, public playgrounds and public gardens.

The European Parliament vote was non-binding, but has significant implications, whatever view is taken of the scientific evidence. Glyphosate products are currently advertised on television for use in gardens, widely used on paths and in public parks, and widely used by farmers to spray whole fields. Caught between claim and counterclaim, the European Commission on 29 June 2016 extended the current approval of glyphosate for 18 months, pending a review by the European Chemicals Agency, with non-binding recommendations to Member States to ban one co-formulant, and to minimise glyphosate use in public parks, playgrounds, gardens and pre-harvest. Greater scrutiny of the relevant scientific evidence, and further controversy, seems inevitable.

For further information, please contact William Wilson or your usual Burges Salmon contact. 

Key contact

Michael Barlow

Michael Barlow Partner

  • Head of Environment
  • Head of Water
  • Head of ESG

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