The weedkiller glyphosate, which is sold under the trade name Roundup, will continue to be licensed for use in Ireland in spite of a US court awarding a former school groundsman who claimed it contributed to his terminal cancer $289 million (€253m).
The Department of Agriculture and Food said it was "guided by the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency, who have both concluded positively on the safe use of glyphosate" – the most commonly-used herbicide in the world.
The department confirmed its position had not changed in light of the verdict and indications that some EU countries, notably France and Germany, may proceed with a ban.
While the award may be overturned on appeal, a further 5,000 cases in the US are in the legal pipeline, alleging Monsanto products containing glyphosate caused cancer in those administering the weedkiller.
It is extensively used in agriculture and horticulture to combat weeds, and is sprayed as a pre-harvest treatment on some food crops. It is also widely sprayed in parks, public spaces, lawns, gardens and on roadsides.
Earlier this year, Ireland supported the renewal of approval for its use after EU reviews concluded glyphosate can be used safely without putting consumers or users at risk. But after considerable disagreement among member states the renewal was agreed only for five instead of the usual 15 years.
A total of 18 of the 28 member states voted in favour of the European Commission’s proposal for a five-year renewal. Since then, several EU municipalities, regions and countries have moved to ban it, while MEPs have called for a phase-out by 2022. The commission had recommended it be limited in public spaces and at harvest time but backed off this after intensive lobbying.
In 2016, a joint report by the World Health Organisation and the UN said that while there was some evidence of a positive association between glyphosate exposure and risk of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in some studies, bigger studies found no evidence of an association at exposure level.
Bobby Miller, chairman of the Irish Grain Growers' Group, said Irish farmers would continue to trust in the EU's scientific verdict that supports the safe use of glyphosate for agricultural purposes under carefully controlled conditions.
“At present we are allowed to use glyphosate here in Ireland as a weed control; it is used differently in the likes of America. That is one point that needs to be highlighted – we don’t use it directly on food-grade crops here in Ireland,” he said.
“It is a very hot debate, there are extreme views, it’s not black and white...it’s a complex situation. The main message is, we are quite content in the way that we use it in Ireland,” he added.
With the likelihood of fodder imports playing a significant role inside farm gates this winter to alleviate feed shortages due to the summer drought, Mr Millar said glyphosate “will be a vital tool to control the spread of invasive weeds”. There was no effective alternative available to farmers at reasonable cost, he said.
The department said it was consistent in its advice on the use of all plant protection products; that they should only be used in accordance with the conditions of use prescribed on the label. “Such conditions of use originate from the authorisation of the PPP (plant protection product) concerned and are established by experts in each EU member state,” it added.
The first study of exposure in Irish adults to glyphosate, conducted by NUI Galway, found the general population is subjected to "low exposure" from the chemical but within acceptable EU safety limits. It investigated background levels of the active ingredient in more than 750 products including Roundup.
Dublin City Council decided earlier this year to trial alternatives to glyphosate on streets and in parks while Fingal County Council has also decided to curb its use where possible.
Monsanto insisted glyphosate does not cause cancer and said it plans to appeal the verdict. Shares in its parent company, the German-owned multinational Bayer, dropped by more than 10 per cent following the verdict, causing a $10 billion slump in its market value.