EU extends licence of controversial weedkiller

Mixed reaction to decision after conflicting reports over cancer risks of glyphosate

A last-minute intervention from the European Commission to extend the licence of a controversial weedkiller, which is used widely in Ireland's tillage sector and public parks, has been welcomed by the farming industry.

However, other groups have criticised the 18-month extension for the sale of the herbicide in light of a World Health Organisation (WHO) report that classified the chemical as "probably carcinogenic to humans" last year.

Glyphosate has been authorised in the EU since 2002. Conflicting findings over cancer risks have caused much debate between politicians on the renewal of the licence this year.

The herbicide glyphosate is sold by agricultural US giant Monsanto in its Roundup weedkiller product that is widely used in agriculture, by gardeners and in the parks of many towns and cities around the State.


Enrico Brivio, European Commission spokesman for Health and Food Safety, said EU member states had "failed to take responsibility" for the licence renewal.

The European Union's member states could not reach agreement to renew the licence for the most frequently used herbicide worldwide, which faced being withdrawn from shelves across Europe after June 30th.

Mr Brivio said the commission intervened and extended the licence until the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) had concluded its review by the end of 2017.

He said the assessments by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which reported "it is unlikely that this substance is carcinogenic", and the member states' national agencies were taken into account before deciding on the limited period extension.

Mr Brivio said the commission had also proposed restricted conditions such as minimising the use of the herbicide in public parks and playgrounds.

“The commission regrets that member states have not yet been able to agree on these restricted conditions and will direct the necessary efforts to have them adopted as soon as possible,” he said.

In favour

Fine Gael MEP Mairéad McGuinness confirmed Ireland voted in favour of extending the approval of glyphosate at the standing committee on June 6th and in the appeal on June 24th but a qualified majority was not reached.

“The commission made that decision as the licence would’ve expired tomorrow, and that would have huge consequences,” she said.

“There is a lot of pressure from both sides of the arguments. We have to take a balanced approach in their [herbicides] use.”

Green Party Cllr Ossian Smyth said he would call for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to ban the use of Roundup on local authority properties including parks and playgrounds.

“I consider this a sensible precaution until we better understand the effect of Roundup on human health and biodiversity,” he said.

"Many European cities from Strasbourg to Copenhagen have long found ways to cope without Roundup and I see no reason that we should continue to douse our county in this poison just because it is cheap," he said.

Liam Dunne, grain committee chairman of the Irish Farmer's Association, said he welcomed the decision to extend the licence.

“Tillage farmers use glyphosate judiciously. It is used when necessary rather than perennially and it is not used on any crops destined for human consumption, in compliance with the Bord Bia and Irish Grain Assurance Scheme,” he said.

Mr Dunne said if the licence was not renewed in the absence of alternatives to control weeds it would “ destroy” Ireland’s tillage sector and have knock-on consequences to the agricultural economy.

“This issue has been used as a political football by a small number of vested interest groups to drive on their own agenda. Europe needs to make decisions to approve or not approve plant protection products based on science and not on political ideologies,” he said.

“Europe ranks as the largest exporter of wheat on to the world market producing in excess of 340MT of grain. Any major disruption to production would cause a significant spike in grain and food prices – a repeat of what happened in 2007.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture said the EFSA review and member state experts identified safe uses for the herbicide.

“The EU peer review process was comprehensive and rigorous and was specially extended to allow for detailed consideration of the report produced in 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organisation,” she said.

“Ireland has supported the commission proposals for the renewal of approval of glyphosate.”

A spokeswoman for the Irish Cancer Society said further research into the area was welcome.

“While there is some evidence that people exposed to very high levels of pesticides through their jobs may have a higher risk of cancer, the risk of tiny levels of pesticide left on fruit and vegetables are unlikely to affect cancer risk,” she said.

“Those exposed to high levels of pesticides through their jobs should protect themselves and follow health and safety instructions.”

Rachel Flaherty

Rachel Flaherty

Rachel Flaherty is an Irish Times journalist