Status: 22/09/2023, 05:13 a.m.
By: Florian Naumann
Important for agriculture or "mockery of science" and attack on health? The EU wants to continue to allow glyphosate, but the traffic light is arguing.
Brussels/Berlin - In the 10s, the topic of glyphosate already heated up the minds - now it's that time again: The EU Commission wants to approve the controversial pesticide for another ten years. There was no risk justifying a ban, the authority said in a report published Wednesday (20 September).
However, the situation is complex: for conventional agriculture, the remedy is important. But there are also admonishing, sometimes even horrified voices from science - as well as some advocates. The dispute could also once again affect the traffic light and German politics. Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir (Greens) apparently wants to organize an EU majority against the readmission. The FDP sees it differently - although the coalition agreement states on page 37: "We will take glyphosate off the market by the end of 2023."
As early as 2017, there had been a glyphosate scandal in Brussels with German participation: The then CSU Minister of Agriculture, Christian Schmidt, tipped the scales in favor of the renewed approval with his yes vote. Although the coalition in Berlin had agreed on an abstention because of an SPD veto. At the time, this earned him a reprimand from Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU).
EU glyphosate extension: Authority has no objections - but admits knowledge gaps
The position of Ursula von der Leyen's Commission, however, now seems quite clear. After evaluating thousands of studies, the EU Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has raised no objections to the extension. However, Efsa does not consider the pesticide to be completely harmless. Accordingly, there should be conditions. In its July study, EFSA also acknowledged data gaps - including nutritional risks for consumers.
According to the new plans, farmers must maintain a buffer strip at least five meters wide when spraying the agent on a field. Glyphosate is to be banned for siccation, i.e. the targeted drying out of plants before harvesting. However, this is already largely the case in Germany anyway. In its report, EFSA had identified a "high long-term risk to mammals" from glyphosate. In order to protect the animals, the EU states should therefore be able to limit the amount and frequency of use of the pesticide.
Glyphosate extension enrages scientists - but there are also advocates
Experts expressed quite different views on the glyphosate issue. "The EU Commission's proposal reveals a systematic denial of the dramatic decline in biodiversity and the scientific evidence that glyphosate contributes to this," reprimanded the Viennese zoologist Johann Zaller. He warned of the impact on human health, biodiversity and nature. In addition, glyphosate is "not necessary" for successful agriculture.
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"Basically, the proposal is a mockery of ecological science."
Johann Zaller, Professor at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna
"The proposed ten-year period for an extension of glyphosate contradicts common sense," said Kassel-based agricultural scientist Maria Finkh in a reaction to the Commission's plans. "Diverse data" showed an antimicrobial effect on animals, humans and plants - which affects health. Finkh called for a "clear ban", with a buffer of three years to "practice and implement" changes.
The ecologist Christoph Schäfers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology Schmallenberg saw the situation differently. The proposal was "adequate". Indications of carcinogenic effects of glyphosate in rodent studies are "taken into account" - by minimizing the exposure of humans to drinking water and food. "When assessing the 'residual risk', it should be taken into account that to date there is no substance that has fewer undesirable side effects with a comparable effect," he added. However, Schäfers also warned: "Less harmful methods should be given priority."
At the heart of this is actually a fundamental question: Should pesticide manufacturers such as Bayer be allowed to sell until harmfulness has been proven beyond doubt - or should a product be banned if concerns cannot be dispelled? "The time span is appropriate, as it takes more than five years to be able to review the effects of the new regulatory components," said Schäfers, explaining his view of the planned approval period.
Özdemir, Greens and FDP already in the glyphosate clinch: "Put health at risk"
The potential for controversy in politics is at least as great as in research. "As long as it cannot be ruled out that glyphosate harms biodiversity, the permit should expire in the EU," Özdemir said. "Glyphosate is a total herbicide, we see the effects on biodiversity, that's why I'm campaigning for a no," he was quoted as saying by the Tagesspiegel. Green MEP Jutta Paulus warned even more drastically: "The EU Commission is putting the health of millions of EU citizens at risk for another ten years." In the USA, there are already successful lawsuits against the manufacturer Bayer Monsanto, but the EU still puts corporate interests above the well-being of the people.
Cem Özdemir during a stop on his summer tour in the Odenwald. © IMAGO/Leon Kuegeler/photothek.de/BMEL
Once again, the FDP sees the situation quite differently. The EU Commission's assessment shows "clearly" that there is no danger to human and animal health – nor to the environment, said Carina Konrad, deputy parliamentary group leader in the Bundestag, to the Tagesspiegel. Accordingly, a united "yes" from Germany is now required. CDU agricultural expert Norbert Lins described the Commission's proposal as an important step for agriculture.
Not surprisingly, the glyphosate manufacturer Bayer also welcomed the EU plans, saying that the draft was based on "convincing, scientifically sound conclusions". More relevant to the debate is probably the position of the farmers. This is not the case with the major associations in favour of glyphosate. Farmers' Association President Joachim Rukwied has repeatedly emphasized the benefits of the pesticide for years. "This is very important for Brandenburg and its soils," said Fabian Blöchl, an expert at the Brandenburg Farmers' Association on Wednesday (20 September) on ARD, assessing the signals from Brussels positively.
Glyphosate could remain - Özdemir "at the end of the day" bound by legal situation
The EU states are to vote on the approval of glyphosate in October. Rejecting the proposal would require a qualified majority of at least 15 member states, representing at least 65 percent of the EU population. Further traffic light dispute after the EU decision is possible.
Because even if an approval is extended at EU level, the drug could theoretically be banned in the Federal Republic of Germany for the time being - as provided for in the coalition agreement. However, claims for damages from the chemical industry could then threaten, as the portal agrarheute.com reported. "At the end of the day, of course, I am bound by the legal situation," Özdemir admitted on the sidelines of the EU Agriculture Council, it was said there. "A national ban on going it alone has so far been considered incompatible with EU law," said Horst-Henning Steinmann of the University of Göttingen. There is a threat of a "dilemma". (fn with material from AFP)