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EU approves glyphosate for five more years, with a split decision

BRUSSELS — With Germany as the surprise deciding vote, the herbicide glyphosate has gained a five-year renewal in the European Union.

After a years-long embroilment, representatives from 18 of the EU’s 28 nations approved the five-year license of the primary ingredient of Monsanto Co.’s Roundup. Nine nations opposed the approval, with Portugal abstaining, which led to a “positive opinion” by the narrowest possible margin under rules requiring more than a simple majority for passage.

The typical reauthorization period for such chemicals is 15 years.

The unexpected move by Germany unblocked a two-year deadlock after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded the substance could cause cancer in humans. The decision also caused discourse between Germany and France, who was a staunch opponent of the approval.

During talks, France had led the opposition to the consent of glyphosate use and after the decision was announced, French President Emmanuel Macron said he had asked government officials to draw up a plan for banning the herbicide in his country within three years.

“I asked the government to make the necessary arrangements so that the use of glyphosate is prohibited in France as soon as alternatives have been found, and at the latest, in three years,” he fired off in a tweet after the decision, with the hashtag #MakeOurPlanetGreatAgain.

As part of his election campaign, Macron ran on a platform of pursuing deeper EU integration alongside Germany. He had hoped to get a shorter extension and a rapid phase-out of glyphosate, which is a primary tool used by farmers across the continent. Despite the extension, EU rules do allow France to ban the substance unilaterally.

As expected, the decision sparked anger among environmental groups. “The people who are supposed to protect us from dangerous pesticides have failed to do their jobs and betrayed the trust Europeans place in them,” said Greenpeace, in a statement.

In a joint press release, the groups Future Generations, Foodwatch and the French League against Cancer said “the European Commission wipes away with the wave of a hand the principle of precaution and health, as well as the voices of millions of citizens who no longer want the most controversial herbicide on the planet.”

Despite the move to authorize the chemical, The Glyphosate Task Force – an industry group which includes Monsanto and Syngenta – stated it was “profoundly disappointed at the outcome of today’s meeting, whereby member states categorically ignored scientific advice.” The group also considers the five-year decision “to be discriminatory against glyphosate, not related to any scientific assessment and mainly influenced by public perception and driven by politics.”

The primary culprit surrounding the scientific evidence revolves around the 2015 IARC conclusion, whose findings have been disputed by many other government and scientific bodies.

The latest study, published in November by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, “observed no associations between glyphosate use and overall cancer risk.” An earlier report in March by the European Chemicals Agency came to the same conclusion.

A Reuters investigation released in October revealed the IARC dismissed and edited findings from a draft of its review of the weed killer that were at odds with its final conclusion that the chemical probably causes cancer. According to Reuters, the original IARC report contained language that “the removal of multiple scientists’ conclusions that their studies had found no link between glyphosate and cancer in laboratory animals.”

Reporters also discovered that the original draft of the IARC study noted “the report ‘firmly’ and ‘unanimously’ agreed that the ‘compound’ – glyphosate – had not caused abnormal growths in the mice being studied. In the final published IARC monography, this sentence had been deleted.”

The current license for glyphosate use expires on Dec. 15.