The European Commission, currently involved in the middle of reapproving the widely-used herbicide glyphosate, is growing visibly exasperated with some of its most powerful members. Earlier this month, news emerged that the French, German, and Italian governments were lobbying the Commission to move ahead with reauthorizing the herbicide without their support – all the while publicly speaking out against the move.
Filling in his fellow commissioners, the EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner, Lithuania’s Vytenis Andriukaitis, bemoaned the fact that the three countries were asking Brussels to authorize the herbicide unilaterally and bear the brunt of the resulting backlash from environmental groups. Meanwhile, national governments could score political points at home and attack the Commission. France in particular has been outspoken on the glyphosate issue, with long-time critic Ségolène Royal setting the tone in Paris and allegedly convincing Italy to follow along.
To move forward with European-level approval of glyphosate’s continued use, the European Commission’s Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF) needs to have at least 16 of 28 member states on board, and that majority of voting states needs to represent 65% of the Union’s population. The number of states voting in favour isn’t a problem, with 20 of 28 states backing renewal and only one (Malta) openly opposing it. The population requirement, however, has allowed Paris, Berlin, and Rome (who together account for over 40% of the Union’s 508 million people) to hold up the approval process by abstaining.
For the French, it isn’t surprising that François Hollande’s embattled Socialist government would quietly ask the Commission to reauthorize glyphosate while it spares itself another costly political battle. Paris is already embroiled in nationwide strikes and protests over its labour reforms, and some of the leading members of an ongoing grassroots campaign against the herbicide are members of France’s own Green party, erstwhile partners of the Socialists in government. Ségolène Royal, currently France’s energy and environment minister, is an outspoken voice against the herbicide. At the same time, however, the French agricultural sector holds tremendous sway and many farmers both in France and across the continent rely on it to protect their crops. Germany’s decision to abstain stems from internal disputes within Angela Merkel’s governing coalition, with the agricultural minister in favour and the junior partner Social Democratic Party opposed.
In lobbying against the reauthorization of the widely-used herbicide, the anti-glyphosate campaign has primarily focused on a 2015 decision from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that the substance was “probably carcinogenic.” That report, however, highlights the discrepancy between coverage of IARC’s findings and what the agency actually sets out to do. The agency, based in Lyon and part of the World Health Organisation (WHO), uses its regularly published monographs to communicate whether a substance or an activity has any link – and that can mean the most minimal of links – to cancer. That helps explain why the organization declared processed meat to be a carcinogen and red meat in general to be a “probable carcinogen” last year.
The idea of bacon and hot dogs giving consumers cancer sparked a media firestorm, but Harvard’s Kana Wu (who works with IARC) pointed out that the agency’s job is not to “assess the size of risk.” Instead, IARC’s research only seeks to determine whether something could be a hazard, never trying to determine how much of a risk is actually posed. Following that logic, processed meat was put in the same category as smoking – even though the magnitude of cancer risk for smoking is 20 times higher. In the course of its history, IARC has only ever cleared one substance of potential links to cancer. All of the others, including coffee and mobile phones, have been found to be possible carcinogens.
As Wu makes clear, IARC does not take responsibility for establishing safe levels of use. Several European and international bodies do make those determinations, and all of them have backed glyphosate as safe to use. A joint committee including the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) made that determination just last month, finding that glyphosate was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk” to humans and unlikely to damage cellular genetic material. In doing so, the WHO/FAO echoed an identical finding from the independent European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) last year. The differing criteria used by IARC is at the root of the discrepancy, but some of the more extreme voices have set their sights on the other agencies involved. In the midst of the reauthorization fight, a suspected parcel bomb was delivered to the EFSA offices in Parma – prompting an outspoken response from Commissioner Andriukaitis.
The European Commission should not be used by as a means of passing the blame by national governments who are unwilling to take action on their own – that is not what the European spirit is about. Instead, the EC should be encouraged and supported by member states to make the right decisions. What’s more, national governments were repeatedly told by the EC that any member state is free to ban any substance approved on the European level. That approval does not supersede national sovereignty, and is the result of technical discussion groups and carefully thought impact assessments.
The continent is beset by multiple crises, ranging from the influx of refugees, to the conflict in Ukraine, to Brexit – all requiring collective action. In these testy times, Brussels should be allowed to do its job, and national governments would be wise to focus their energies on working together towards solving collective problems.
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