Update — June 6, 2016 — After failing twice to approve a new license for glyphosate, EU member states did not support a limited 12-18 month extension of the herbicide’s current license on Monday.
The inability of European Union member countries to come to an agreement over glyphosate could have implications for agriculture on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The license for glyphosate in the EU is set to expire on June 30th. If approval isn’t granted by then, EU member states would have to withdraw glyphosate-based products within six months, effectively banning the world’s most common herbicide. For exporting countries such as Canada and the United States, import tolerances for glyphosate on crops shipped to the EU would practically disappear, potentially creating a major trade disruption.
The EU Plants, Animals, Food and Feed Committee is at an impasse, having twice postponed voting on the license for glyphosate because the qualified majority could not be reached. Approval must come from at least 55 percent of the 28 countries involved and represent 65 percent of the EU population. Since France, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands are opposed, it appears Germany will need to vote in favour of renewal, but Germany’s coalition government is split on the issue. The country’s environment minister is opposed, while Germany’s agriculture minister, who represents a different party, supports renewal of the license.
Despite several EU and United Nations reports saying glyphosate is not likely to cause cancer, non-governmental organizations and environmental activist groups are petitioning EU member states to not renew the authorization, with many of them citing the IARC report published last year, which described glyphosate as “probably” carcinogenic.
“What we’re talking about here is very hypothetical, but it just goes to show you how significant this dialogue, this rhetoric has become around pesticide use in Europe, that we’re potentially on the brink of one of the most significant crop protection tools not being renewed for strictly political reasons. It’s almost mind-boggling,” says Pierre Petelle, vice-president, chemistry with seed and chemical industry group CropLife Canada (listen to his perspective on the EU scenario below.)
The European Commission has already compromised to accommodate the opposed member states, reducing the length of the renewed license for glyphosate from the standard 15-year term to nine years, but that proposal was not approved last week. On June 1st, the EU’s health and safety commissioner said the committee will try again, and vote on a limited extension of the license next week.
The Glyphosate Task Force (GTF), which represents companies that market glyphosate, says “an extension is not necessary given the clear case for approval and can be a bad outcome and precedent for all stakeholders…approval for 15 years remains the most appropriate outcome.”
“The GTF consider this situation to be discriminatory, disproportionate and wholly unjustified,” said chair Richard Garnett. “Ultimately, failure to follow the process appropriately and within a reasonable timeframe will only serve to seriously undermine the credibility of the EU legislative framework and put European agriculture at a competitive disadvantage.”
For imports, the EU’s maximum residue limits (MRLs) for glyphosate in canola, soybeans, wheat, oats, barley, sunflowers, peas and lentils are currently set at 10 or 20 mg/kg. Without an agreement of some sort, they would default to 0.1 mg/kg on July 1st.
While Canadian industry groups are reluctant to speculate, “the assumption is that this won’t happen — that an extension will be granted in the interim past June 30th and/or that cooler minds will prevail and the registration will be continued for a period of time,” notes Petelle.
The continent’s reliance on imported grains and oilseeds for livestock feed is one reason it’s hard to believe the EU would close its borders to crops with glyphosate residues above 0.1 mg/kg.
According to an EU Commission report on imports of genetically modified crops published in March 2016, the EU imported an average of 36.1 million tonnes of soybean equivalent over the last three years, which works out to a self-sufficiency ratio of just 3 percent for soybean and soymeal consumption. It’s estimated 85 percent of these soy imports were genetically modified, with a high probability they were glyphosate-tolerant and treated with glyphosate. Corn imports have totalled between 8 and 14 million tonnes, while rapeseed (canola) averaged 3.5 million tonnes per year, with an additional 0.2 to 0.47 million tonnes of rapeseed meal. The odds are high that at least some of these imports contain glyphosate residues above the default import tolerance.
The non-decision about glyphosate is also hanging over the EU’s long overdue decision on three glyphosate-resistant soybean traits, including Monsanto’s Roundup Ready 2 Xtend product. Monsanto was ready to introduce its Xtend soybeans in Canada this spring, but growers were forced to find other seed since EU import approval was not in place. Grain companies in the US have also said they won’t accept Xtend beans without EU authorization.
With time running out, some of the uncertainty could be addressed, or at least pushed back, as soon as next week, as EU member states plan to discuss and vote on a limited extension to glyphosate’s current license on Monday.