An article for Euranet Plus looks at regulatory loopholes that allow glyphosate herbicides and other pesticides of questionable safety to remain on the market

Here’s the third and final part of the excellent series of articles on glyphosate herbicides and other pesticides by Jean-Michel Bos for Euranet Plus.

There are links to sources, audio interviews, and graphics at the original URL below.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Glyphosate, the most-hated herbicide – Part 3

Jean-Michel Bos
Euranet Plus, June 27, 2016

The EU member states failed to clear the renewal of the authorisation of the weed killer glyphosate and this week the Commission might adopt a technical extension for 18 months. Euranet Plus is publishing the final part of an investigation – focusing on the loopholes of the EU control process.

After having tried in vain to reach a qualified majority three times among the EU member states on the future rules regarding glyphosate, on June 24 an appeals committee did not have more success in ending the deadlock.

France voted against while Germany continued to abstain.

The European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) has been criticising the lack of clear decisions by the member states for weeks. “This no opinion from the Appeals Committee is yet another blow for science-based decision making in the EU,” said ECPA’s Director of Public Affairs Graeme Taylor.

As the necessary qualified majority was not reached, the EU Commission will likely take the lead on Wednesday (June 29) and technically extend from 12 to 18 months the authorisation of the controversial herbicide.

It is an urgent matter as the current authorisation of glyphosate runs out on June 30.

This extension aims to wait until the EU chemical agency (ECHA) will have published its assessment on glyphosate.

After months of scientific and political wrangling around the herbicide glyphosate, the scariest part of the story could eventually be that the active substance in Monsanto’s Roundup might not be the most dangerous pesticide on the market.

Neonicotinoid or organophosphate insecticides are probably more hazardous for human health – among them chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide, one of the world’s leaders in its category.

In the pesticide labyrinth many ghost are dragging their chains and it is unclear why glyphosate was so much in the spotlight and why, at the end of the day, it was the one which caught political awareness in Brussels.

But it might be also a mistake to consider glyphosate a harmless substance and that the whole story was “Much Ado About Nothing”.

One of the main points to bear in mind is that if glyphosate is hazardous for human health, the commercial products on the market – and among them the world famous Roundup – are far more dangerous.

Why that? Because commercial end-use products mix the active substance glyphosate with so-called co-formulants which help the product to go deeper and faster into weeds for killing them.

“It would be the same if you want to examine the carcinogenic effect of smoking and you just look into the effect of nicotine. But what about additives and adjuvants?” asks Robin Mesnage, research associate at the King’s College in London.

Mesnage explains that “Roundup is 1,000 times more toxic than glyphosate alone.” His statement is based on a research paper that he published with other colleagues in 2014, stating that major pesticides are more toxic to humans than their active substance.

“Eight formulations out of nine were up to one thousand times more toxic than their active principle,” the research paper stated, adding that these results are directly challenging the relevance of the acceptable daily intake (ADI) for pesticides “because the norm is calculated from the toxicity of the active principle alone” and not from the product used by farmers or sold in supermarkets.

This means that taking the commercial product Roundup, legal tests and ADI are calculated on the active substance glyphosate without taking into account the co-formulants.

List of 500 co-formulants

The main issue is that nobody is able to deliver a list of co-formulants used with glyphosate in the EU. Vague estimations consider that roughly 500 are on the market.

The EU Commission reminds that this is the responsibility of member states and EU sources explain that around 20 countries have send to Brussels the list of adjuvants used with glyphosate in their own countries.

Enrico Brivio, spokesperson of EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, did not confirm this information. But Andriukaitis explained in Strasbourg in April that “DG Health has started to work on a list of prohibited co-formulants” without giving any agenda for the publication of this list.

It’s mainly the reason why the European Parliament called upon the Commission in a resolution voted in April “to set up a clear time frame for establishing a list of co-formulants not accepted for inclusion in plant protection products.”

The only accurate proposal made by the Commission is to be found in a draft implementing regulation presented last February by the EU executive.

In this document, the Commission stated that “member states shall ensure that plant protection products containing glyphosate do not contain the co-formulant POE-tallowamine.”

The Commission has been asking to ban POE-tallowamine for months. Some would say it’s a good start – others consider the EU move falling short since it concerns one co-formulant on a list of roughly 500 used in the European Union.

Fear of court cases

According to NGOs, the EU authorization process for pesticides has loopholes that industry might have been tempted to use. Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe has published a document showing that until 2008 around 50 pesticides have been kept on the market even though they should have been banned because of data gaps.

The so-called “resubmission procedure” has granted pesticide makers a second chance. In exchange for a “voluntary withdrawal,” chemical companies have been allowed to keep their products on the market for years, waiting for a second assessment.

PAN Europe considers that one of the reason for this generous offer might be “the threat of a massive number of court cases of industry” which could completely paralyse DG Health services, whose staff is already overwhelmed with pesticide approvals.

“The Commission is afraid of industry’s lawyers because they systematically bring their cases to court,” an EU source explains.

An internal document of the Commission, updated in September 2013, shows that over a total number of 78 proceedings, 70 have been initiated by industry, seven by NGOs and one by a member state.

66 up to 78 cases had an outcome in favour of the Commission.

Another loophole is the so-called confirmatory data procedure. This might sound like civil servant jargon, but in fact it concerns pesticides which have been granted with a market access although the industry did not deliver the necessary data.

In that case chemical companies are supposed to “confirm” in a later phase that there is no risk for human health and the environment, which they don’t always do.

Being aware that the confirmatory data procedure has been used more and more in the last years, EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly harshly criticized the Commission in a decision published last February.

O’Reilly concluded that by using the confirmatory data procedure for the approval of active substances for pesticides, the Commission “infringed the precautionary principle” and its frequent use of this particular procedure “appeared to constitute maladministration.”

“What our investigations found is that the Commission did not follow the procedure which would have given reassurance to everybody who is exposed to these chemicals in Europe and elsewhere that they actually are safe”, Emily O’Reilly told Euranet Plus.

“And that’s why I’ve made this charge of maladministration against the Commission.”

The EU Ombudsman also underlined that controls made by the EU Food and Veterinary Office revealed that member states “had failed to comply with certain restrictions imposed at EU level”.

In other words, it appeared that many months after having been banned, some pesticides were still commercialised in two member states, Romania and Czech Republic.

“Chemicals that have been found to be hazardous have not been withdrawn in certain member state countries,” Emilie O’Reilly added.

“And I think the Commission also has to be aware of that because it’s simply not good enough that there would be a sort of two classes in Europe, one class that is protected from these chemicals and one that is not.”

TTIP is in the house

It might not be a surprise that the renewal of the glyphosate authorisation might be an issue linked to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the EU-US trade agreement which is currently under difficult negotiations.

A US government spokesperson reminded that “glyphosate is a safe crop protection tool used by millions of farmers throughout Europe, the United States and around the world”.

Washington hopes that the Commission “will follow science and fully renew glyphosate’s authorisation”.

The economic interests at stake are putting the glyphosate debate under a high pressure, explained German member of the European Parliament (MEP), Martin Häusling (Greens). (audio in German)

“There is a huge economic pressure. Glyphosate is used on roughly 40 percent of the fields in Europe. It’s really one of the most used pesticides. And there is of course some pressure coming from outside the EU,” said Häusling.

“If the European Union would ban or severely restrict the use of glyphosate, then our trade partners in the US would massively campaign against.”

Yet in Brussels, MEPs asked the Commission in a resolution to mandate the Food and Veterinary Office “to test and monitor glyphosate residues in foods and drinks produced in the Union as well as imported”.

The US are not mentioned, but it is an open secret that glyphosate is widely sprayed on American fields and there is so far no information about the residues in US food imported in Europe.

The Alliance for Natural Health USA has recently tested 24 popular breakfast foods like oatmeal, bagels or whole-wheat bread and concluded that 10 of 24 foods had detectable levels of glyphosate.

High glyphosate residues levels have also been found in organic food products like eggs and bread.

Last May, an inhabitant of Brooklyn, New York, filed a lawsuit against Quaker Oats, asking for five million dollars and claiming that its advertising is “false, deceptive and misleading” since glyphosate is used to grow the oats.

About four months ago, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will begin to look for glyphosate residues in food products sold in the US, among them soybeans, corn, milk and eggs.

The FDA’s move comes two years after having been criticized by the US government Accountability Office for not taking enough action to track chemical residues in foods.

Back in the EU, Greens MEPs are advocating for a similar broad testing of food, but so far no such move is previewed.

“We are very bad in assessing the human exposure to chemicals in Europe,” explained Lisette van Vliet, Health and Environment Alliance’s senior policy officer on chemicals and health.

So far, the most important European bio monitoring initiative, called COPHES has measured biomarkers for only five products (bisphenol A, cadmium, mercury, phthalates, tobacco smoke) in 17 European countries.

Lack of control

At the end of the day, the lack of transparency of chemical assessment might rock the confidence that each citizen is supposed to have in the European food safety system, “the safest in the world,” as Commissioner Andriukaitis repeatedly says.

Regarding the technicality of the topic, with civil servants overwhelmed by hundreds of chemicals to assess, the influence of industry and the questionability of regulations decided behind closed doors, it is fair to ask if, after all, this essential issue for human health could not be fixed with more money, with more manpower.

EU lawmakers have recently called on the Commission to provide the European Food Safety Authority with the financial means “to pay external experts and develop in-house research to ensure independence.”

That would be a first step to enhance the independence of the EU chemical assessment process which concerns the health of 500 million European citizens and the protection of their natural environment.

“In any of these issues I think it’s always important to be honest and to name the problems. And if the Commission does have serious difficulties in monitoring this, then it has to raise it as an issue, a serious issue,” Emilie O’Reilly says.

“The problem has to be named and dealt with then. Because eventually all of this information comes out anyway as you know. Even if manpower is the reason, it can’t be the excuse.”

Author: Jean Michel Bos, Euranet Plus News Agency