The European Commission has just over three weeks to find a solution on the future of glyphosate in the EU after member states again failed to reach agreement on a compromise proposal.
Experts representing member states met in Brussels on Monday to vote on a revised proposal to extend the marketing authorisation of the key herbicide for a further 18 months.
But, without the support of eight member states, including France and Germany, sufficient agreement for a qualified majority supporting the proposal was not reached. Seven member states, including France, Germany and Italy, abstained, with only Malta voting against.
These leaves the Commission with limited options before glyphosate’s licence requires on July 1.
According to Reuters, without a qualified majority, the Commission has the option of submitting its proposal to an appeal committee of political representatives of the 28 member states within one month.
If, again, there is no decision, the European Commission may adopt its own proposal. This would be a last resort for the Commission, which has previously stated its reluctance to push the proposal through without the necessary support of member states.
A Commission spokesman said EU commissioners would discuss the issue when they met on Tuesday.
The European Commission proposed an 18-month extension in order to give the European Union’s Agency for Chemical Products (ECHA) time to report on its scientific assessment on the carcinogenicity of the glyphosate before the issue is addressed again at EU level.
The Commission had already had proposals to extend glyphosate’s EU marketing authorisation blocked twice in recent months.
Glyphosate’s current authorisation expires on July 1.
Should there be no extension by then, member states would have to withdraw the authorisations for plant protection products containing glyphosate from their market.
Speaking ahead of Monday’s meeting, EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis urged member states who had not taken a position in recent months, including Germany, to back the latest compromise and those, led by France, who want to ban the herbicide not to ’hide behind the Commission’.
The 18-month extension compares with previous proposed extensions of 15 years and nine years. The European Parliament voted in favour of a seven-year extension in April.
Mr Andriukaitis said: "I believe 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 (the herbicides and pesticides themselves) put on their respective markets.
"The EU approval of an active substance only means that the Member States can authorise plant protection products on their territory, but they are not obliged to do that.
"The Member States who wish not to use glyphosate based products have the possibility to restrict their use. They do not need to hide behind the Commission’s decision."
The Commission is also preparing a second decision, reviewing the conditions of use of glyphosate in the form of three clear recommendations:
The Commissioner reiterated his view that ’high level of protection of human health and the environment, as provided for by the EU legislation, is paramount’.
He said: "At the same time, I remain deeply convinced that our decisions should remain based on science, not on political convenience."
He said the proposals and decisions on glyphosate were based on the guided assessment done 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.
Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg said the outcome of Monday’s meeting showed governments ’remain sceptical about the continued use of the controversial weedkiller’.
She said: “Extending the glyphosate licence would be like smelling gas and refusing to evacuate to check for a leak.
"As long as there is no meaningful EU-wide restriction on glyphosate use, we will continue to live in a world that is awash in a weedkiller which is a likely cause of cancer.”
“It’s scandalous, but not unusual for the Commission to keep dangerous pesticides on the market after their licences expire.
"It has even extended the licence for substances that Europe’s own chemicals agency has identified as highly damaging to our health.
"What’s new this time is that governments paid attention and didn’t just sign off on the Commission’s proposal."
Presidents of four UK farming unions have sent a letter to European policymakers and elected officials highlighting the importance of the reauthorisation of glyphosate ahead of the vote.
The NFU, NFU Cymru, NFU Scotland and UFU warned banning glyphosate would have 'grave consequences for European agriculture'.
The letters stated: "The ongoing situation has already severely damaged the credibility of the European Food Safety Authority and as a consequence has eroded confidence and certainty in the regulatory system.
"It is deeply worrying that a decision that has very real consequences on millions of peoples’ everyday lives is the subject of political bargaining.
It adds: "European farmers need glyphosate to provide a safe, secure and affordable food supply while increasingly responding to consumer demand for greater environmental sensitivity.
"Glyphosate is subject to regulation, as with all other pesticides, so that it is not found in dangerous quantities in the food chain.
"It is also an essential tool used in farming practices that actually improve soil structure and require less work with machinery; thus helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"Furthermore, application pre-harvest not only ensures the quality of the crop, but also means that less drying after harvest is required."
It warned: "The removal of such a tool carries the very real risk of yet another pressure on our incomes at a time when economic returns are already severely squeezed."
The letter concluded: "In our view there is no well-reasoned argument holding back a full reauthorisation of glyphosate in line with the regulatory process.
"We fear that without such a course of action there would be grave consequences for European agriculture that will resonate for years."