Eu’s Commission is trying to restore public trust after last year’s dramatic re-authorization of the herbicide. But unless it can demonstrate that its decisions on the food chain are rooted in scientific fact, Bruxelles will not regain authority

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin
REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

On April 11, the European Commission (EC) issued a proposal designed to make the way it assesses risks relating to the food chain more transparent. The move is in part a bid to restore public trust following last year’s dramatic re-authorisation of the herbicide glyphosate, which included a European Citizens’ Initiative petition with more than a million signatures seeking to ban the chemical, thanks to dubious evidence linking the herbicide to cancer.


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In its official response to the Citizens’ Initiative petition, the Commission found that there were “neither scientific nor legal grounds to justify a ban of glyphosate,” but agreed that the European Union (EU) needed to review how scientific studies inform its risk assessments. The proposed changes include creating an online register, which European citizens could easily consult, of all studies and information involved in the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)’s risk assessments of any substances affecting the European agri-food chain.

Additionally, under the new rules, EU member states would be able to nominate experts to sit on the EFSA panel, a change intended to make the panel more representative of the diversity of member states and to underscore the authority’s commitment to rigorous independent assessment.

These proposed changes would undoubtedly be considered welcome progress by the vast majority of European citizens who want the European institutions to be more transparent. Unfortunately, they fail to address some of the fundamental concerns the glyphosate debacle uncovered about the scientific rigour underpinning risk assessments.

Glyphosate, the world’s most commonly used herbicide, was finally reapproved for use in the EU in December 2017 after 18 months of deadlock – although it was only licensed for five years, rather than the full 15 that farmers’ groups and some member states had sought.

The decision seemed to satisfy no one — green groups claimed that EU officials had “failed to do their jobs and betrayed the trust Europeans place in them,” while farmers, who had threatened to sue the EU if it had failed to renew glyphosate’s license, were worried about the shortened authorisation.

They also expressed their concerns that the glyphosate debate owed more to politics than it did to science, and that it set a dangerous precedent of emotional, fear-based policymaking taking precedence over scientific evidence.

The specifics of the dispute over glyphosate suggest that their concerns were justified. The evidence cited by the Citizens’ Initiative petition and by most opponents of glyphosate is a 2015 report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which asserted that the substance was “probably carcinogenic” to humans. IARC’s evaluations significantly impact public opinion and policy, despite the fact that its scientific integrity has increasingly been called into question as reports of data manipulation, seriously inaccurate estimations, and cherry-picking studies to fit the desired narrative have surfaced.

Opponents of glyphosate are nevertheless forced to continue citing the IARC report, no matter how discredited the agency has become, because it remains the only major agency to find a link between the herbicide and cancer.

Glyphosate’s renewal caused a particular polemic in Germany, which cast the decisive vote in favour of renewing glyphosate’s license, despite having abstained from previous rounds of voting. This about-face provoked an angry reaction from the Environment Minister at the time, who argued that the vote represented a change in position taken without consulting her. Since forming its new coalition government, Berlin has taken a different stance, with members from both ruling parties agreeing to limit glyphosate usage in the short term and planning to phase it out completely by 2021.

And yet, Germany’s own Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has found no link between the use of glyphosate and an increased risk of cancer in humans. BfR, the European Chemical Agency (ECHA), EFSA, and regulators in countries such as the United States, Japan, and New Zealand have all signed off on glyphosate’s safety. The recently published Agricultural Health Study – the most comprehensive study of its type on pesticides to date, and a study which the IARC left out of its review – found no provable connection between glyphosate and cancer.

This one-sided nature of the available evidence on glyphosate may explain why a number of countries having performed U-turns on glyphosate following the vote. Greece, for example, was part of the cohort of nations opposing glyphosate’s renewal at the EU level, but recently renewed the chemical’s national license for the full five-year period. France, which had vocally supported a total ban on the herbicide, later softened its approach, admitting that no viable alternative to glyphosate currently exists.

These policy reversals lend credence to EU farmers’ complaints that national political considerations, not science, were behind some countries’ reluctance to reapprove the herbicide. By pursuing greater transparency, the EC hopes to re-establish public trust in the process by which it evaluates risk. But simply making available the studies considered by a committee won’t inspire confidence if those studies are flawed themselves.

Unless the EC can demonstrate that its decisions are rooted in scientific fact, it will face an uphill struggle to regain – and retain – authority.

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