You are here:

House of Commons Library

Glyphosate: Controversy surrounding the EU's re-approval of the pesticide

Published Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Glyphosate's re-approval for use in the EU has been a topic of fierce debate in the last few years and has been subject to delays as a range of scientific evidence has been considered regarding potential health risks.

Jump to full report >>

UPDATE: On 27 November 2017, the EU's Appeal Committee(Phytopharmaceutials) agreed by qualified majority in favour of a recent propoal by the European Commission to renew the approval of glyphosate for a period of 5 years. This proposal is supported by the UK Government.

This briefing paper is being updated to reflect recent developments.

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

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.
  • 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 Authority (EFSA).
  • The renewal of the EU authorisation for glyphosate was delayed at EU level with conflicting scientific assessments: 
    • The IARC concluded that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic” to humans. It also found that there was “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma” but “convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals”.
    • The EFSA concluded (taking into account the IARC findings) that glyphosate was unlikely to be genotoxic i.e. damaging to DNA or to pose a carcinogenic threat to humans.
  • The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in March 2017 concluded that glyphosate was not carcinogenic, although it had found that it caused serious eye damage and was toxic to aquatic life. This review will contribute to future authorisations.
  • Future approval of glyphosate remains contentious on some Member States, although the UK supports the continued use of it.
  • A report from Oxford Economics and the Anderson Centre (in partnership with the Crop Protection Association) in June 2017 concluded that an EU ban on pesticides containing glyphosate could:
    • lead to a reduction in farm output of £940 million
    • reduce tax revenues generated by agriculture and its supply chain by £193 million
    • see wheat production fall by 20 per cent, cereal fall by 15 per cent and oil seed rape fall by 37 per cent and consequently push up food prices.
  • 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 Commons Library briefings on agriculture and environmental issues are available on the topic pages for agriculture and environmental protection

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8066

Authors: Gabrielle Garton Grimwood; Emma Downing

Topics: Agriculture, Agriculture and environment, Countryside, Environmental protection, Farmers, Food

Share this page

Stay up to date

  • Subscribe to RSS feed Subscribe to Email alerts Commons Briefing papers

House of Commons Library

The House of Commons Library provides research, analysis and information services for MPs and their staff.