Glyphosate will continue to be available to UK farmers for the next 18 months at least, after the European Commission stepped in at the last-minute to re-authorise it.
The European Commission has confirmed it will re-authorise glyphosate for a further 18 months, just days before the flagship herbicide’s current authorisation was due to expire.
EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis confirmed the extension at a press briefing on Tuesday, despite the Commission deciding to postpone its meeting on the subject as its timetable became overrun by Brexit considerations.
"The Commission will follow our legal obligation. We know very well that we have a deadline of June 30. We will adopt an extension for glyphosate of 18 months," he said.
With glyphosate’s current licence due to expire on June 30, the Commission was forced to take matters into its own hands after repeatedly failing to secure an agreement among member states on re-licensing the chemical most commonly known as ‘Roundup’.
The license is to be extended, crucially without any new conditions attached as had been feared, until December 2017, by which time the Commission expects the European Agency for Chemical Products to have published its findings on the health impacts of the product.
A decision on the longer-term authorisation of glyphosate will then be taken, based on the findings of the report.
The Commission’s actions will come as a relief to the UK farming industry.
Country Land and Business Association deputy president Tim Breitmeyer said: “Glyphosate is desperately needed by farmers across the country battling with the debilitating effects of rye and black grass.
"This extension allows for a definitive impartial view to be published before the license expires again. To remove the licence based around poor science and a precautionary principle would be counterproductive.”
Mr Breitmeyer said banning the chemical altogether would have a detrimental effect for agriculture and the environment.
He said: “It would add significantly to the cost of food production with a significant reduction in environmentally friendly conservation tillage and the consequential loss of organic soil carbon and thus further greenhouse gas emissions.
"It could also mean the use of less effective but equally harmful chemicals at higher dosage rates.”
Crop Protection Association (CPA) chief executive Nick von Westenholz said the Commission has been forced into taking the decision by a politicisation of the regulatory process.
He said: "It is disappointing that Member States have forced the Commission into this position by ignoring the science and advice of expert regulators.
"The indecision of Member States and the need for an extension demonstrates how politicised this process has become. Nevertheless, it will be a relief to farmers that they will be able to continue to use this crucial tool, at least in the short-term."
“Given that the extensive evaluation carried out by the relevant EU authorities, and over 40 years of robust scientific evidence has confirmed that glyphosate poses no risk to human health and that there is no cancer or endocrine disruptor risk, the standard 15 year renewal should have been granted.
He said the expiration of the approval at the end of June would have had ’serious consequences for UK farmers who rely on glyphosate as a cornerstone of sustainable, productive agriculture’.
He added: "Whilst that situation has been averted for now, we urge Member States to take the sensible, science led decision to re-licence this safe, efficient and effective product for the full 15 year period once the 18 month extension has expired."
An NFU spokesperson welcomed the announcement glyphosate has been re-authorised with no additional conditions of use attached, albeit for a reduced 18 month period instead of for the expected 15-year approval.
He said: "This is a welcome endorsement from the Commission of science-based decision-making in the EU. As Commissioner Andriukaitis said in his statement issued on 1st June, ’the EU’s authorisation procedure as regards pesticides is the strictest in the world’.
"We share the sentiment voiced by the Commissioner when he said EU decisions should remain based on science, not on political convenience.
"As Commissioner Andriukaitis also pointed out in his statement on 1st June, 2016 ’it is important to clarify that once an active substance is approved – or renewed at EU level – it is then up to Member States to authorise the final products put onto their respective markets’.
Friends of the Earth farming campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: “Glyphosate has been given a stay of execution in Europe, but it remains the world’s most over-used herbicide.
"Farmers have been told that this chemical is safe – yet there is mounting evidence of the harmful impacts on our health and environment.
“Despite the Brexit vote, the Government must now see that glyphosate’s days are numbered and produce a phase-out plan for this and other damaging chemicals."
The last failed attempt in early June by the Commission to push its proposal for an 18-month extension through, already a huge compromise on the initial proposal of 15 years, saw 20 member states, including the UK, support the proposal.
Opposition to the herbicide’s re-authorisation is driven largely by a report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer last year which concluded glyphosate was ’probably carcinogenic to humans’.
Mr Andriukaitis said earlier this month the proposals and decisions on glyphosate were based on the guided assessmentdone by the European Food Safety Authority and, before it, the German Federal institute for Risk Assessment (Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung).
"They both concluded that Glyphosate is unlikely to be carcinogenic," he said.
The World Health Organisation and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization recently concluded glyphosate was ‘unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet’.
The NFU has published an infographic highlighting why it believes glyphosate is such an important chemical.