Analysis: Why glyphosate reapproval has stalled

© Tim Scrivener

© Tim Scrivener

While doubts remain over the long-term future of glyphosate in the EU market, it is clear that a partial ban such as pre-harvest, or total loss would have major implications for arable businesses.

Reapproval of the pesticide in recent months has become mired in controversy with some scientific studies suggesting it is carcinogenic, although others have given it a clean bill of health.

What was thought to be a rubber-stamping exercise to approve it for another 15 years has seen a vote postponed twice with even talk of a compromise of a seven-year approval.

Difficulties in finding agreement among MEPs eventually led to a temporary compromise being put forward.

See also: Glyphosate delay a ‘dangerous precedent’ for farm chemicals

But even this proposal to temporarily extend its use for a further 18 months failed to get the necessary support at a standing committee meeting in Brussels earlier this month (6 June).

The unclear outcome of this vote – in which the vast majority of the EU’s 28 member states backed an extension but failed to meet the necessary population threshold – leaves the final decision in the hands of the European Commission.

At the time of writing (20 June), the industry was still waiting to hear the outcome of the appeals committee expected later in the week.

However, looking long-term, what is worrying is that both France and Germany are on record as being reluctant to take a position (they abstained in the 6 June vote).

As Tom Keen, the NFU’s European policy adviser in Brussels explains, in this particular case, abstaining is as good as voting no.

How did we get to this point?

A broad-spectrum herbicide which has a history of safe use for more than 40 years, in as many as 160 countries worldwide, is now the centre of a dispute among politicians, regulators and researchers, with many fearing that politics, rather than science, will have the final say.

Despite the fact glyphosate is supported by one of the most extensive human health, safety and environmental databases ever compiled, it has been left hanging in the balance by a well-organised fear campaign and political pressure from environmentalists, rather than by its safety record or the needs of the people who use it.

See also: New guidelines aim to prevent glyphosate-resistant weeds

As the commissioner for health and food safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, pointed out in his recent statement, the EU’s authorisation procedure for pesticides is the strictest in the world, with years of scientific assessment required before an active ingredient is approved, or renewed.

This process relies on the pooling of expertise of the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) and all 28 member states.

As such, the decisions on glyphosate were based on an assessment done by Efsa and before it, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment.

Both concluded glyphosate is unlikely to be carcinogenic.

His statement also stressed while protecting human health and the environment is paramount, he remained convinced EU decisions should be based on science, not on political convenience.

Whatever the outcome, the troubles facing glyphosate – and its farmer and amenity users – highlight the deep mistrust among the public over the use of pesticides in agriculture and the environment, as well as the power that some groups have in pushing issues to the fore.

Two good examples illustrate the depth of this feeling.

The borough of Hammersmith and Fulham in London has already bowed to public pressure and agreed to stop using glyphosate in parks and public spaces, replacing it with chemical-free alternatives such as steam and foam.

And the results of a recent YouGov poll suggested that two-thirds of Europeans supported a ban on the use of glyphosate.

What has been done?

At the EU level, there are plans to review the conditions of use of glyphosate. This is a separate decision to the current impasse, and it will be progressed after the all-important vote at the end of this month, if necessary.

Three clear recommendations have been made:

  • Ban a co-formulant called POE-tallowamine from glyphosate-based products
  • Minimise its use in public parks, playgrounds and gardens
  • Minimise the pre-harvest use of glyphosate

Each member state has its own responsibility when it comes to introducing such measures, just as it does to authorise final products and market them.

In the UK, organisations such as the Crop Protection Agency (CPA) and the NFU have been working hard to keep glyphosate in the toolbox and bring the emphasis of the debate back to the needs of farmers and other glyphosate users.

Andrew McShane, managing director of agrochemical distributor Hutchinsons, believes the industry has been doing everything it can to maintain glyphosate’s approval and applauds the role farmers have played by lobbying their MEPs.

“Glyphosate is a key component in arable farming systems,” he stresses.

“Along with others, we’ve been very busy explaining what impact the loss of glyphosate would have on our clients and their ability to produce financially viable crops.”

He acknowledges that the next stage of the review process is unclear, but highlights that there is usually a considerable use-up period for revoked products, so that stores can be cleared without any financial loss.

“It’s unlikely to happen, but we have to consider all the options. As a business, Hutchinsons is very committed to industry stewardship and keeping products available for growers.

“That’s why we wrote to our farmer clients encouraging them to lobby their MEPs.”

Tom Bradshaw, NFU regional crops board chairman for East Anglia, received one of the letters and was pleased to see that commercial organisations and others were actively engaged.

“It’s a good example of the whole industry working together on a vitally important issue. Let’s hope that common sense prevails and we get a positive outcome.”

Bedfordshire farmer Sandy Wade-Gery, who grows 480ha of combinable crops, took things a stage further and went to visit his MEP in Brussels.

“The loss of glyphosate would be one of the biggest threats that my farming business has faced, ever since it started back in the 1970s,” he says.

“It’s a valuable product and I don’t think we could continue to farm in the same way without it.”

His Conservative MEP for the east of England, Geoffrey van Orden, was receptive, he reports.

“He took on board our concerns and understood them. That was encouraging, as was his reassurance that the UK is better represented by bodies such as the CPA and NFU than many other countries in Europe.”

Hutchinsons agronomist, Philip Styles, who advises Mr Wade-Gery, points out that the implications of losing glyphosate on current farm practices would be huge.

“We would have to increase our cultivations, in order to manage weeds, creating all sorts of environmental issues, such as soil erosion and more greenhouse gas emissions.”

A return to older chemistry would also be likely, he predicts. “We don’t really want to do that – it seems like a step backwards when we are all trying to farm sustainably.”

What do we know about glyphosate’s safety?

The only study to have ever put the safety of glyphosate into question was the report from the WHO’s cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IACR), which was issued in March 2015.

This concluded that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”, sparking a chain of events that could have huge implications for farmers and growers across the EU.

A chemical sprayer being filled from a bottle

© Tim Scrivener

In November 2015, the European Food Safety Authority published its own findings, which contradicted this result and concluded that glyphosate was unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.

It supported previous work done by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, the USA Environment Protection Agency and even the World Health Organization itself – all of which came to a different conclusion to that of IACR.

Their joint conclusion was that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a risk to people exposed to it through food.

However, environmental and citizen campaign groups have seized on the absence of scientific certainty and called for a EU-wide ban.

A statement from Greenpeace’s EU food policy director, Franziska Achterberg, said that extending the glyphosate licence would be similar to “smelling gas and refusing to evacuate to check for a leak”.

Meanwhile, the Soil Association’s “Not in our Bread” campaign continues to call for a ban on pre-harvest treatments, following their claim that 30% of UK bread contains the active ingredient.

However, official tests have shown glyphosate levels remain well below statutory maximum residue limits.

How is glyphosate used on farms?

In the UK, glyphosate is an essential component of many weed control strategies, according to Adas.

Mainly used between the harvest of one crop and the drilling of another, it allows growers to “clean up” their stubbles, deal with successive grassweed flushes and reduce the weed seed burden.

Glyphosate being sprayed pre-harvest

© Gary Naylor

Other popular uses include the destruction of cover crops, spraying off unwanted vegetation and general weed control around the farm.

However, it also has a role in the pre-harvest management of crops and is widely used to desiccate oilseed rape before combining and even up its ripening, while also removing perennial weeds.

It performs this role in some cereal crops too, making their harvesting easier and quicker.

It is estimated that about 60% of the UK oilseed rape crop is treated with glyphosate ahead of harvest, but only 8% of the UK wheat crop.

In wet and difficult harvests, this figure can increase.

Similarly, pea and bean crops are sometimes desiccated, although growers prefer to direct combine and minimise costs.

Glyphosate resistance – something which has not been found in the UK to date but is now a reality in other parts of the world – has come about through repeated use and over-reliance on the chemical.

As a result, guidelines have been produced by Weed Resistance Action Group, explaining how to minimise its use and promoting best practice.

These are available free of charge from AHDB, with growers being urged to follow the advice and try to reduce their use of the product where possible.

What are the alternatives?

There’s a good reason why Roundup used to be marketed as “sunshine in a can”, says Barrie Hunt of Monsanto.

“When it comes to desiccation, that’s the role it performs,” he says. “If it’s hot, dry and sunny, you don’t need it.”

With that in mind, countries in the more southern parts of Europe have no need for glyphosate pre-harvest, he continues.

“In addition, some millers and maltsters don’t allow it to be sprayed in the crop’s later growth stages, so growers should always check with the end user.”

In oilseed rape, alternatives at this timing include swathing, direct combining or the use of diquat.

As the only other approved chemical dessicant, diquat (as in Reglone) works in a different way to glyphosate as it is a non-selective contact herbicide.

That means that it gives a more rapid desiccation than glyphosate, which may take 21 days, so crops need to be harvested five to six days after application to prevent seed losses.

A further consideration with diquat is that it can only be used on laid cereal crops and those destined for animal feed or industrial use.

Its future, however, is also under threat.

The European Commission has proposed to withdraw the use of diquat, following concerns raised about its impact and safety.

The active is up for re-registration and current approvals were also due to end on June 30 this year – however these have been extended for 12 months, while it goes through the re-registration process.

Its loss could have serious consequences for potato growers, as it is seen as a vital tool for the desiccation of haulm, as well as disease and tuber size management.

The other product often mentioned for pre-harvest use, glufosinate-ammonium, is now restricted to potato haulm desiccation.

For pre-drilling weed control – where its loss would be felt the most – there are no like-for-like alternatives to glyphosate. Although cultivations can be used to bury weed seeds and destroy weed seedlings, this would increase costs and do more harm to soils and the environment, many believe.

According to James Clarke of Adas, there has been a 200% increase in costs on US farms which have glyphosate resistance.

“That shows what an economic difference the loss of one product can have.”

He gauged the opinion of agronomists at a recent conference and received a resounding response.

“When asked if they could produce cereals cost-effectively without glyphosate, they said no.

“Interestingly, none of them were recommending it be used more than three times between harvest and drilling.

“So it is being used responsibly in most situations.”

Farmer reactions

Andrew Bott, Hertfordshire

“I want to know how I am supposed to farm without glyphosate.

“Having switched to a no-till system for crop establishment, I am using it as part of an integrated strategy to control grassweeds.

“Most of our glyphosate applications are not made to crops – they are targeting the weeds.”

Sandy Wade-Gery, Bedfordshire

“The loss of glyphosate is one of the biggest threats that my farming business has faced since we started farming back in the 1970s.

“It is the most valuable product on the farm and I don’t think we could continue to farm without it.”

Dan Wormell, Essex

“If the use of glyphosate was restricted, rather than banned, I could probably work with that.

“I would be able to get by without applying it to crops, but it is essential for grassweed control outside the growing crop.

“Herbicide resistance has made stale seed-beds a vital technique.”

Chris Baylis, Lincolnshire

“My concern about moving to an establishment system based on min-till and direct drilling in the past few years – for all the right reasons – is that it has increased our reliance on glyphosate.

“Without it, there would have to be a complete change in rotation and a significant drop in production.”

Philip Partridge, Suffolk

“Of course, we could farm without glyphosate if we had to. But making any money doing it with current commodity prices is very unlikely.”

Phil Rowbottom, Yorkshire

“Not having glyphosate would be a challenge. We would need to change our rotations in order to get control of grassweeds.”

Andrew Harker, Lincolnshire

“Without glyphosate, there would be higher [greenhouse gas] emissions, more intensive cultivations, higher diesel use and a negative impact on the environment.”

Alan Leedham, Staffordshire

“Losing the active would mean a change in cropping, involving much more cultivation, power, fuel and labour, as well as carbon dioxide output.”

Jeremy Squirrell, Suffolk

“Put simply, farming without glyphosate would be almost impossible. It’s used for blackgrass control, cover crop destruction and rape desiccation, and to reduce the risk of weed resistance developing.”

David White, Cambridgeshire

“It wouldn’t be easy if we didn’t have glyphosate and the farm would be a poorer place for wildlife and soil biodiversity.

“Why undo all the good that many farmers are doing? We would go back to 1960s production levels.”