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A fight on the farm exposes EU dysfunction

Herbicide boondoggle threatened Europe's farmers, as politics - not science - dominated the agenda

After the spring election of the pro-Europe French President, Emmanuel Macron, the euro zone's return to steady, if not robust, growth and the end of fears that bailed-out Greece would sink under the Aegean waves, the European project seemed to spring back to life this year, in spite of Brexit.

That is what the cheery headlines suggested. Underneath, the European Union was as dysfunctional as ever and if you still need to be convinced of this sorry reality, look no further than the glyphosate boondoggle. Glyphosate is the world's most widely used herbicide. It was invented by Monsanto in the 1970s, stops plants from making certain proteins that are needed for growth and may or may not cause cancer (Germany's Bayer is buying Monsanto for $66-billion [U.S.]). For more than two years, the efforts to renew the chemical's EU market access, or terminate it, have pitted the EU states against each other and created an atmosphere of hysteria that has gone beyond the realms of science into the political front lines, where it was lobbed around like a live grenade. The glyphosate saga even divided the cabinet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The outcome - the renewal this week of glyphosate's market access for a mere five years, over the objections of France and Italy - pleased no one. How typically European.

The European edition of the glyphosate story, in effect, began 17 years ago, when Monsanto's patent on the chemical, the active ingredient in its ubiquitous Roundup weedkiller line, expired. The prices dropped as the Chinese and other agrochemical producers entered the glyphosate market, and farmers across Europe became addicted to the product. They really had no choice. If they abandoned glyphosate, or used less-effective herbicides, farm yields would fall, prices would rise and imports of cheaper agricultural products from countries that continued to use it, such as Canada and the United States, would increase.

As glyphosate became indispensable, concerns about its risk to humans, farm animals and wildlife intensified. In 2015, the debate over its safety, or lack thereof, raged when the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer, classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic." But "probably" didn't seal the chemical's fate, since many other studies and reviews did not reach the same conclusion.

In 2016, the European Food Safety Authority said that glyphosate is "unlikely" to cause cancer. At the same time, a review conducted by the WHO itself said, "Glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet." Earlier this year, the European Chemicals Agency said glyphosate was toxic to aquatic life but "that the available scientific evidence did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen." Researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health this month "observed no associations between glyphosate use and overall cancer risk" and Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency had a similar conclusion.

Still, faced with a pile of reports that said glyphosate could not be considered a carcinogen, and one report that it might be, the EU went into political spasms that triggered uninformed claims and counterclaims that nearly ended glyphosate's use in the European market. In June, 2016, the EU's member states delayed a final decision on reauthorizing glyphosate's use. In the usual can-kicking exercise, the EU extended the herbicide's licence for 18 months, and when that date came, the glyphosate vote was delayed once again. In the meantime, the EU parliament voted to ban glyphosate by 2022. The vote was non-binding, but it put pressure on the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, to recommend a shortened licence renewal for the chemical. The EC had been calling for a 15-year renewal, later reduced to a 10-year renewal.

With the renewal process in disarray, various countries took sides and farm groups went into open revolt, threatening lawsuits if glyphosate were to be banned. France and Italy, both agricultural powerhouses, opposed the licence renewal. Germany was undecided. As the EU's dominant economy, Germany's vote could make or break glyphosate.

Why was Germany sitting on the fence? Again, the answer was politics. After Ms. Merkel's poor showing in Germany's September general election, the Chancellor entered coalition talks with the Free Democratic Party and Green Party, which had opposed glyphosate's use for years. If Ms. Merkel wanted the Greens in her coalition, Germany's endorsement of glyphosate's renewal would be a non-starter.

Germany changed its mind at the last minute and broke the deadlock on Nov. 27 by voting in favour of glyphosate's renewal. By then, the coalition talks had collapsed. But even that turned into a farce: Germany's agriculture minister, Christian Schmidt, acted alone in ordering German officials to vote in favour of glyphosate's renewal. Mr. Schmidt consulted neither Ms. Merkel nor the environment minister, Barbara Hendricks, who opposed the renewal.

The vote endorsed glyphosate's renewal for a mere five years. The available studies suggest it should have been renewed for 10 or 15 years. Still, glyphosate could be a health hazard. As the British Medical Journal recently pointed out, most of the science used to support glyphosate safety in the United States was conducted more than 30 years ago. The science needs to be updated. But unless the chemical is proven unsafe, it was reckless to risk triggering a crisis among farmers across Europe by threatening glyphosate's demise. Politics, not science, dominated the agenda, exposing the shambles that the decision-making process in the EU has become. Is it any wonder that trust in the EU is low?

© The Globe and Mail

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