Monsanto’s flagship weed killer, Roundup, has had a tough year. And it could get worse. With Roundup at the centre of a federal case in the United States over claims that it causes cancer, European Union
officials will meet in Brussels on Thursday as they weigh whether to allow the continued use of products that contain Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, in its 28 nations.
Because Europe makes such decisions the way Americans vote for president — with a weighted vote among its member states — the outcome is tricky to predict.
A final decision, already long delayed, is not expected until later this year. France and Italy have indicated they will oppose the reauthorisation, while Germany’s position remains unclear. A range of outcomes are possible, including phasing out Roundup and similar products entirely or limiting the length of their reapproval.
While Roundup still enjoys broad support among farmers and a number of European governments, sentiment against its maker is at a low point in Europe, with a petition campaign against glyphosate reportedly surpassing one million signatures. Last week, the European Parliament also made Monsanto the first company barred from lobbying the chamber after its executives refused to take part in a hearing over glyphosate. Monsanto viewed the hearing as a political sideshow.
“We are ready and willing to engage the European Parliament and policy makers in Europe,” said Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice-president of global strategy, in an email. But, he added, “this particular forum was not set up for substantive discussion related to the regulation and use of glyphosate.” Monsanto, which is in the process of being acquired by Bayer, also faces litigation in the US from farmers, members of their families and others who claim that Roundup is connected to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The litigation has led to embarrassing questions about whether the company had engaged in ghostwriting of news articles and academic papers.
The rise of Roundup has reshaped agriculture. Two decades ago, Monsanto introduced its line of Roundup Ready seeds, which were genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate. That meant that farmers could spray Roundup after crops emerged from the ground, killing weeds later in the growing season. Its use soared around the globe in key crops like corn, cotton and soybeans, from the US to Brazil to Australia.
Glyphosate has become so ubiquitous that weeds are becoming more resistant to it, leading Monsanto and other companies
to develop alternatives. That process, too, has been challenging. New versions of an old herbicide, dicamba, developed by Monsanto and BASF as an alternative to glyphosate, have divided farmers and led to litigation that it is damaging some crops. It is no surprise that Monsanto, which has been the most outspoken corporate proponent of using genetically modified crops to make it easier to spray pesticides, has few fans among environmentalists. And even though Europe has almost entirely shunned genetically modified crops, glyphosate is still the most popular weed killer on the Continent.
“Our planet is being poisoned by Monsanto,” said Teri McCall, a California avocado farmer whose husband, Jack, used Roundup for years and died in 2015 after suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. McCall, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Monsanto, was in Brussels to meet with European lawmakers, accompanied by her lawyers from Baum Hedlund, a Los Angeles firm.
“At the very least it needs to have a warning label so people can make an informed decision,” she said. “My husband was under the impression that it was safe.” Monsanto vigorously rebuts the cancer claims and has lamented the popular opposition in Europe, which is at odds with the opinions of regulators. Two agencies, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency, have signed off on the safety of glyphosate. And the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, has recommended reauthorizing glyphosate, though the decision falls to the member states.
“The conclusions of EFSA and ECHA that glyphosate should not be classified as carcinogenic is in line with the conclusions of many other regulatory bodies, both inside and outside the EU,” said Anca Paduraru, a spokeswoman for the European Commission. “We would welcome a country that intends to vote against to explain the scientific reasons.”
Little in the world of pesticides comes without bitter dispute, with companies
and their critics both attacking the positions of public agencies. The cancer claims against Roundup spring from an assessment by the International
Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, which categorised glyphosate as a probable carcinogen in 2015. Monsanto and its allies have assailed the finding as an outlier.
Likewise, environmental activists have attacked European regulators, saying they rely too heavily on the word of industry giants when making safety decisions. The European Food Safety Authority was harshly criticized after The Guardian reported that its assessment had partly been copied from Monsanto.
“They quoted long bits and pieces,” said Sven Giegold, a German member of the European Parliament from the Green Party. “You would be committing fraud if you did this for your Ph.D.”
The food safety agency has said that consulting with companies
whose products are being considered is the normal course of doing business, and that nothing in its review was out of the ordinary. Bernhard Url, the executive director of the agency, has called the criticism “the latest in a series of efforts to discredit the scientific process behind the EU
assessment of glyphosate.”
Monsanto and its competitors, many of which also sell glyphosate products after Monsanto’s patent expired years ago, now see the process as divorced from rational discourse.
“We have observed with increasing alarm the politicisation of the EU
procedure on the renewal of glyphosate — a procedure which should be strictly scientific but which in many respects has been hijacked by populism,” Monsanto wrote in a recent letter to the European Parliament.
When the reauthorisation vote comes, Germany could be pivotal. The country’s position has been complicated by its recent national election; Chancellor Angela Merkel is still trying to put together a government, one that is expected to include the Green Party, which takes a dim view of glyphosate.
Joachim Rukwied, president of the German Farmers’ Association, said Merkel had assured farmers at a meeting this year that she supported glyphosate.
“She is for prolongation of glyphosate for the next 10 years,” he said. “I hope this will be the position of Germany.”
The Green Party has its own ideas, but neither politicians nor executives were inclined to predict the outcome.
“The use of pesticides is a big concern,” Giegold said, adding that he opposed prolonging glyphosate’s approval in Europe. “I think France and Italy, if they sustain their position, it will depend very much on Germany.”
© 2017 The New York Times News Service