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Commons Library analysis: Controversy around the EU's re-approval of the pesticide glyphosate

Published Friday, March 17, 2017

Controversy surrounds the pesticide glyphosate, whose effects on human health are disputed. This briefing from the House of Commons Library looks at the recent history of the EU authorisation for glyphosate.

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This briefing from the House of Commons Library looks at the recent history of the EU authorisation for the pesticide glyphosate.

Glyphosate has been in the news in recent months because of a delay to a decision at EU level to re-approve its use past 2017. The issue is contentious as some studies have claimed in the past that the pesticide could carry health risks.

Key points are:

  • Glyphosate is a widely-used, non-selective herbicide (or herbicide ingredient) registered for use on many food and non-food crops, as well as non-crop areas where total vegetation control is desired.  It was discovered and brought to market as a herbicide by Monsanto in the 1970s under the trade name "Roundup".
  • Roundup is the world’s best-selling weedkiller. Farmers and growers apply it to control weeds without harming their crops. It is also used as a crop desiccant (that is, it is sprayed on crops to dry them out and make them easier to harvest).
  • In its briefing on glyphosate, the National Farmers Union (NFU) describes it as a “vital resource in modern agriculture” and highlights (for example) its role in reducing soil erosion and compaction:
  • Pesticides are regulated initially at an EU level. EU approval of the herbicide glyphosate was granted in January 2002, based on a review of health and environmental data.
  • A European Commission proposal to renew the authorisation for glyphosate for the next 15 years was expected in 2012, but was delayed so that the decision could be informed by two key scientific opinions on glyphosate’s safety from two bodies - the UN’s specialist cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA).
  • The renewal of the EU authorisation for glyphosate was then delayed at EU level with conflicting scientific assessments. 
  • The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in March 2017 concluded that glyphosate is not carcinogenic, although it has found that it causes serious eye damage and is toxic to aquatic life. This review will contribute to future authorisations.
  • Future approval of glyphosate remains contentious in some Member States, although the UK supports the continued use of it.
  • The NFU is encouraging its members to write to MPs and MEPs.

This briefing therefore examines:

  • What glyphosate is and how it is used
  • The views of stakeholders – manufacturers, farmers and NGOs – and recent campaigns
  • The EU’s current approval for glyphosate
  • Concerns about pesticide residues in food and
  • The impact Brexit might have.

Further reading

The European Parliament Research Service blog post Renewal of the authorisation of the use of the herbicide substance glyphosate sets out the history of EU action on glyphosate up to January 2017.

The Commons Library briefing Brexit: impact across policy areas provides more background information on pesticide regulation and the possible implications of Brexit (CBP 07213, 26 August 2016: see page 63).

More briefings on agriculture and environmental issues are available on the topic pages for agriculture and environmental protection

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7928

Author: Gabrielle Garton Grimwood

Topics: Agriculture, Countryside, Diseases, Environmental protection, Food

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