In spite of the EU renewal of glyphosate, herbicides based on the chemical are on their way out and other agrochemicals must follow, says Dr Angelika Hilbeck *
The German agriculture minister Christian Schmidt sparked outrage on Monday when he approved a five-year renewal of the EU licence for glyphosate, the active ingredient of Monsanto's flagship herbicide Roundup, in spite of opposition from the environment minister Barbara Hendricks. He apparently acted not only without the knowledge of Chancellor Angela Merkel but also counter to the agreed position of the coalition government.
Germany has abstained in past EU votes on glyphosate in deference to the lack of consensus within the government. Schmidt’s unilateral backing for glyphosate allowed the chemical to be re-approved with the backing of a qualified majority of member states, although the Commission was within its rights to approve it unilaterally if no qualified majority for or against was reached, as was the case in previous votes.
Schmidt and Hendricks belong to different political parties that were brought together in Merkel's last coalition government. In the wake of the recent elections in Germany, Merkel is struggling to form a new coalition. Schmidt's "rogue" behaviour on glyphosate has strained the already difficult negotiation process between the potential coalition partners.
Cause for optimism
The five-year extension for a chemical classified by the World Health Organisation's cancer agency IARC as probably carcinogenic has disappointed many.
But I am not pessimistic about these events as I also see opportunities in them. If Germany had done what Merkel wanted and abstained again in the glyphosate vote, the Commission would have approved glyphosate without member state backing and the stalemate between those who oppose and support continued use of the chemical would have carried on. A total ban at this point would not have gained enough political support.
Schmidt's ill-considered move has now finally brought action into this entrenched situation and it may actually turn out to help those who oppose glyphosate. It has caused a fully-fledged scandal in German politics at a time when parties are struggling to build a new government. In Germany at least, virtually everybody knows about glyphosate. This issue may even become the tipping point for government coalition negotiations.
Against that background, what has been achieved by the movement against glyphosate is enormous. Glyphosate-based herbicides are likely on their way out – in Europe due to public resistance, and in North and South America due to rampant weed resistance. And the glyphosate issue has gained an enormous amount of publicity.
Europe has approved glyphosate for five years, one-third of the normal 15-year period. This is bad news for the pesticide industry – hence the unenthusiastic reaction from the industrial farmers' lobby COPA-COGECA. And France and Italy have announced that they will phase out glyphosate within three years.
The industry has lost a lot of money invested in lobbying and PR in support of glyphosate. The credibility of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the German regulator BfR, which both gave glyphosate a clean bill of health, has been left in a shambles.
Struggle is bigger than glyphosate
Glyphosate has made it to the top of the political agenda – something I would never have thought possible only a year ago – thanks to Minister Schmidt, who most likely will not continue as a minister in the new government.
However, the overall struggle is much bigger than glyphosate. And it cannot be won by going about it in a reductionist way, one pesticide at a time. For each pesticide that goes, another will come that is bad or worse. The neonicotinoids that replaced toxic organophosphates and pyrethroid insecticides were, like glyphosate, introduced on the back of claims of eco-friendliness. But now they are found to be poisoning bees and wildlife. Even if in time, neonicotinoids are banned, industry will be ready with a replacement that again is hyped as safer – until it’s proven not to be safe after all.
Now is the time to step off this pesticide treadmill. We must bundle all our capacities and powers into pushing for the transformation of all European agriculture into a poison-free system. The era of poisoning our water, soils and foods must come to an end. We must build coalitions across many sectors and mobilize everybody toward this goal. This includes the "conventional" farmers who use these pesticides.
Farmers want a way out of using poisons
I have met many such farmers who are not happy about using poisons and would love to farm without them. They are sick and tired of being the villains and don't want to poison our water, food and soil. But they are left high and dry and with nowhere to go in a policy environment where agriculture is just another extractive industry modelled solely on economic parameters. The model is constructed with perverse economic incentives (the current subsidy system) that make the products of those who destroy the environment and threaten human health artificially cheaper than those who don't.
Creative approaches are needed to help these farmers to make the transition to a modern, benign agricultural system. This means that at the political level, the remarkable public engagement against glyphosate must now be channelled into influencing the European common agricultural policy (CAP) negotiations. The negotiations for the next CAP in 2020 start now. The same vested interests that pushed for glyphosate renewal are already lining up their lobbying efforts to make sure that ecologically destructive intensification and enhanced agrochemical use remain at the centre of our agricultural future. All those of us who want a poison-free agro-food system – and I am convinced it is a large majority – must make our voices heard, loud and clear.
Let's do all we can to build a European and transnational movement with political bite to bring about the phase-out of this tragic era of human history. The time is ripe to fight for this goal.
* Dr Angelika Hilbeck is a senior researcher at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Integrative Biology in Switzerland and outgoing chair of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER).