Sunday 25 September 2016

Weedkiller ban will be ‘disaster’ for Irish farming

EU refuses to extend glyphosate licensing amid cancer scares

Sarah Collins

Published 07/06/2016 | 02:30

The licence for glyphosate is due to expire at the end of this month. Photo: (c) Ilfede | Dreamstime.com
The licence for glyphosate is due to expire at the end of this month. Photo: (c) Ilfede | Dreamstime.com

EU governments have refused to re-authorise agriculture’s number one weedkiller glyphosate for use in Europe, over concerns that the product may be linked to cancer.

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The licence for glyphosate — a key ingredient in Roundup — is due to expire at the end of this month.

In a tense vote yesterday, national representatives in the EU’s plants, animals, food and feed committee threw out a European Commission proposal to extend the current authorisation for 12-18 months, pending new scientific advice.

If no solution is found before July 1, farmers will be forced to stop using products containing glyphosate, the world’s most-used herbicide, by December 2018.

Farmers say there are no viable chemical alternatives for weed control, and that costs and carbon emissions will go up if they have to switch from glyphosate to ploughing.

“This would be a total disaster for Irish farming,” said Carlow agronomist Pat Minnock.

“Glyphosate revolutionised cereal production here since it became available in the 1970s. It has increased cereal yields and reduced costs by controlling scutch.

“There is no other herbicide out there that will control scutch roots.

“A graminicide will control it temporarily, but there would be very limited options for its use in cereal crops,” he said.

The issue has heralded an era of more politicised environmental lawmaking, with growing concerns that other commonly used pesticides will be subjected to a similar process.

Unusual

“It’s unusual for the re-licensing of a product to receive such political attention,” Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness said. “I think this will extend to the re-licensing of other products.”

The Glyphosate Task Force, representing manufacturers, has contacted the commission seeking a full licence renewal.

The issue will now be heard by an appeal committee made up of ambassadors from the EU’s 28 countries, and will be discussed by commissioners at their weekly meeting today.

Although 20 EU countries, including Ireland, were in favour of reauthorising glyphosate, EU voting rules require a “qualified” majority of 55pc of EU countries that make up 65pc of the EU’s population.

The fact that the EU’s most populous states, Germany, France and Italy, abstained from Monday’s vote, made re-approval impossible. Malta was the only country to vote against.

The vote follows several compromise proposals by the Commission, which says EU countries can ban the use of specific products containing glyphosate.

EU health chief Vytenis Andriukaitis has warned governments not to “hide behind” the Commission’s decision.

Glyphosate came up for a 15-year renewal last year but a decision was put off after a World Health Organisation (WHO) body classified it as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.

The advice conflicts with the European Food and Safety Agency, which found it was “unlikely” to be carcinogenic, a position echoed by a joint United Nations/WHO committee last month.

The European chemicals agency is now reviewing its toxicity but is not expected to rule before mid-2017.

One of the biggest issues surrounding glyphosate’s use in Europe is the practice of ‘burning off’ cereal crops with the pesticide 10 days before harvest. “It is probably the issue that concerns people most,” admitted Mr Minnock.

However, the crop advisor said that the technique was the only way for continuous cereal rotations to work in Ireland.

“You could increase the integrated pest management (IPM) techniques, but by waiting until the crop is harvested to deal with scutch, you will not get back into to sow until maybe November.

“That doesn’t work in modern rotations where farmers are trying to spread the autumn workload and get crops planted in good conditions in September and October,” he said.

EU health chief Vytenis Andriukaitis has warned governments not to “hide behind” the Commission’s decision.

Glyphosate came up for a 15-year renewal last year but a decision was put off after a World Health Organisation (WHO) body classified it as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.

The advice conflicts with the European Food and Safety Agency, which found it was “unlikely” to be carcinogenic, a position echoed by a joint United Nations/WHO committee last month.

The European chemicals agency is now reviewing its toxicity but is not expected to rule before mid-2017.

One of the biggest issues surrounding glyphosate’s use in Europe is the practice of ‘burning off’ cereal crops with the pesticide 10 days before harvest. “It is probably the issue that concerns people most,” admitted Mr Minnock.

However, the crop advisor said that the technique was the only way for continuous cereal rotations to work in Ireland.

“You could increase the integrated pest management (IPM) techniques, but by waiting until the crop is harvested to deal with scutch, you will not get back into to sow until maybe November.

“That doesn’t work in modern rotations where farmers are trying to spread the autumn workload and get crops planted in good conditions in September and October,” he said.

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