The possible renewal of the approval of the weed killer glyphosate in the EU is met with criticism from a number of scientists. Approval for another ten years would be “scientifically unfounded and completely inappropriate,” explained Rita Triebskorn, working group leader at the Institute for Evolution and Ecology at the University of Tübingen. The EU proposal is unacceptable. But there are also other research statements.
Glyphosate is a total herbicide, meaning it affects all green plants. According to the EU Commission's proposal on Wednesday, its approval should be extended by ten years. It currently runs until December 15th. The draft should be discussed with the EU states this Friday. The vote on this is scheduled for October 13th. The global sale of products containing glyphosate is a billion-dollar market, and the quantities distributed are enormous.
Criticism of the paper
Johann Zaller from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU) is also very critical of the paper: "Basically, the proposal is a mockery of ecological science." The EU Commission's proposal reveals a systematic denial of the dramatic decline in biodiversity and the scientific evidence that glyphosate contributes to it. "Impacts on soil organisms and soil health are not even mentioned in the proposal, although it is evident that soils across Europe are contaminated with glyphosate."
The active ingredient blocks an enzyme that plants need to produce vital amino acids, but which is also found in fungi and microorganisms. Where glyphosate is applied, grass no longer grows, including herbs, bushes or moss. Arable land can be cleared of weeds before or shortly after sowing and again after the harvest. With genetically engineered crops whose growth is not affected by glyphosate, the agent can also be used in fields that have already been planted.
The Commission does provide for restrictions and conditions - for example maximum values for toxicologically relevant impurities in glyphosate, non-sprayed buffer strips at the edge of the field and better protection of land and aquatic plants from so-called spray drift during application. However, these are not sufficient to release the active ingredient safely into the environment or to limit the increasing accumulation in people and the environment, explained the Tübingen ecotoxicologist Triebskorn together with her institute colleague Heinz-Rüdiger Köhler.
Gaps in knowledge of toxicological and ecotoxicological findings would be seen as an argument for approval, complained Köhler and Triebskorn, who are members of the Federal Environment Ministry's expert panel on trace substances. Long-term effects have hardly been researched so far - but the lack of such data should not be a reason for further approval, but on the contrary, according to the precautionary principle, must lead to the substance no longer being allowed to be used.
There are also other assessments
Christoph Schäfers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology comes to a different assessment. “I think the proposal is appropriate,” he said. The limitation to 10 years instead of the usual 15 years makes it clear that this is a substance that needs to be particularly monitored. "When assessing the residual risk, it should be taken into account that to date there is no substance that has fewer undesirable side effects with a comparable effect."
The main problem with glyphosate is its use on an extremely large scale, says Schäfers. If this is restricted as part of the new regulation, a lot has already been achieved - even if production without herbicides is ultimately better.
“Glyphosate is lightweight in terms of risks, but it is a big driver of the quantities applied,” says Horst-Henning Steinmann from the Center for Biodiversity and Sustainable Land Use at the University of Göttingen. Since the use of glyphosate has already been subject to numerous restrictions in recent years, it is conceivable that the application quantities with the proposed regulation would change only slightly compared to the past. “Perhaps we should think about whether a system of capping quantities is feasible,” said Steinmann. This can ensure that glyphosate is only used “where it has the greatest benefit and where there is no practical alternative”.
With its proposal, the EU Commission is opposing demands from Germany. “As long as it cannot be ruled out that glyphosate harms biodiversity, the approval in the EU should expire,” said Federal Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir (Greens). A diverse and intact flora and fauna is the prerequisite for secure harvests. The agricultural chemical company Bayer, on the other hand, welcomed the draft regulation.
Groups contained test results
The active ingredient developed by the US company Monsanto was first approved in 1974. The patent expired in 2000, and since then products containing glyphosate have also been offered at low prices by numerous other manufacturers. Scientists emphasize that although glyphosate can sometimes be replaced by other active ingredients, simply replacing it is not a solution: the amount of herbicides and other pesticides used must generally be significantly reduced. Organic farming is generally glyphosate-free, regardless of the area.
According to an analysis presented in June, companies had withheld test results from European authorities when approving pesticides. This involves studies on whether active ingredients can damage the developing nervous system (DNT; Developmental Neurotoxicity), as the researchers at Stockholm University wrote in the journal “Environmental Health”. A study from 2001 on the neurotoxic effects of the active ingredient glyphosate trimesium was never submitted to the EU regulatory authorities. In some of the analyzes affected, the results contained could have had an influence on the approval process. It is unclear why the investigations were not submitted.