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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy Stock Photo Shelf with Pesticides for garden use in Supermarket

Opinion The cost of glyphosate is mounting - for health and habitats

MEP Grace O’Sullivan says the continuation of the use of RoundUp for another decade is a devastating blow.

ON THURSDAY OF this week there was quite a rare occurrence in the European Union institutions. Member States failed to agree or even disagree on an issue of major importance to human health and to Ireland’s biodiversity.

In Brussels, we might be used to plenty of bad compromises, good mistakes and fantastically mediocre outcomes, but rarely do we get no decision at all.

On that day, representatives of EU Member States met in an appeals committee to decide once and for all if the weedkiller glyphosate, better known by the brand name RoundUp, would be taken off the shelves for good. By the end of that meeting, no decision was taken. No majority was reached, no compromise made.

A free run 

And so, with no direction from EU governments, the European Commission now sees no other option than to allow the chemical glyphosate to remain on the market for another decade.

The continued use of glyphosate is a highly political issue, with serious consequences for human health and wildlife.

It is perhaps the most widely used pesticide in the world, with a market of about €4bn a year. As well as its general use to treat weeds and mosses on driveways and lawns, it is more widely used in agriculture and forestry. In tillage farming, it has been used to facilitate harvesting as well as for weed control. It has now even made its way into our bloodstream. A recent study by the University of Galway found traces of it in the urine samples of 25% of Irish families tested. In some countries, such as the USA, those numbers are closer to 80%.

Glyphosate track record

This widespread use, the low price, and the open availability of glyphosate come at a cost. A cost we are only starting to come to terms with.

The European Chemicals Agency has classified glyphosate as toxic to aquatic life. Given the known presence of glyphosate in Irish rivers, this should start ringing alarm bells. Other studies have shown glyphosate seriously damages the ability of pollinators like bees to maintain a colony – pollinators which four out of five European crops and flowering plants depend on to survive.

In human health, it has been linked to liver cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. While the jury remains out on the carcinogenic link to glyphosate despite the WHO defining it as ‘probably’ carcinogenic in 2015. Millions have already been paid out in settlements taken by farmers in the US, France and Australia who have been hospitalised from the effects of the weedkiller, including a campaign of 5,000 affected farmers in the US.

Political football

Despite this, the European Food Safety Authority released a risk assessment earlier this year on glyphosate, which concluded “no critical areas of concern” around the active ingredient. This had us scratching our heads, especially as the same report found a “high long-term risk to mammals” in 12 of 23 proposed uses of the chemical.

Unfortunately, the same report did not take into account the impacts on biodiversity, despite what we know about the detrimental impact of this weedkiller on our natural heritage.

Moreover, the report found massive gaps in the data. Most worryingly perhaps was the lack of information about how glyphosate reacts with co-formulants and adjuvants – chemicals commonly mixed with glyphosate and designed to amplify its effects.

roundup-weedkillers-in-supermarket Alamy Stock Photo Roundup Weedkillers in Supermarket. Alamy Stock Photo

The chemical itself was branded and marketed by the agrochemical giant Monsanto and was designed essentially to kill everything that wasn’t a Monsanto plant. So it is no surprise then that the same company (since bought out by rival giant Bayer) has put a lot of money into lobbying to keep glyphosate on the market. In 2021 and 2022, companies with a stake in glyphosate spent over €600,000 in lobbying European officials and MEPs via the Irish PR firm Hume Brophy (now known as Penta), according to the EU Transparency Register. Elsewhere, the US government and agrochemical lobbies have pressured countries like Thailand and Mexico to drop proposed bans on glyphosate, threatening trade wars in retaliation.

No political courage

The EU appeals committee’s failure to come down hard on glyphosate this week will likely lead to the product staying on our shelves for another decade. It is a bitter pill to swallow for campaigners, farmers, market gardeners and communities who have fought hard over the decades to take on the lobbies and the special interests.

As an MEP working on the Environment Committee, I am determined to keep up the momentum. We are calling for the President of the Commission to intervene, and for Ireland to take a step forward in restricting the use of glyphosate as has already been done in countries like Luxemburg, Belgium and France.

With more and more countries opposing the use of glyphosate, it is just a matter of time before it is taken off the shelves. I just hope that day comes before its impact on human health and on biodiversity is already irreversible.

Grace O’Sullivan is a Member of the European Parliament for Ireland South, trained field ecologist and former Greenpeace activist.

Grace O'Sullivan MEP
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