MEPs launch new investigation into glyphosate and herbicides

Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller that contains glyphosate for sale in France. REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller that contains glyphosate for sale in France. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Sarah Collins

The much-maligned weedkiller, glyphosate, is back in the news, as MEPs launch a report into its health effects and an inquiry into the EU's overall pesticides authorisation system.

The report, by scientists from Italy's Ramazzini Institute is part of a larger study billed as "the most comprehensive study ever on glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides".

Glyphosate, the most-used herbicide in the world and the active ingredient in Monsanto's RoundUp, was relicenced by the EU last year. But the licence only runs for five instead of the usual 15 years because of a scientific row which erupted in 2015 over whether it causes cancer.

Since then, several EU municipalities, regions and countries have moved to ban the substance, and MEPs have called for a phase-out by 2022. Even the European Commission, in a proposal ahead of its licence renewal, recommended that it be limited in public spaces and at harvest time.

France and Germany are weighing up all-out bans, but farmers and local authorities are struggling to find effective and cheaper alternatives.

The Pesticide Action Network recommends a combination of preventive measures such as crop rotation or mulching, ploughing or other physical weed control, "biological" methods (using insects, bacteria or grazing animals to attack weeds), and "natural" herbicides such as vinegar.

"Flame weeding", where liquefied gas-fuelled flame-throwers are fixed to a tractor attachment and raked over row crops, has become a more popular physical method, but reports in Germany and Austria say weeds are regrowing and authorities are concerned about fires.

In the UK, Norwich and Bristol city councils made headlines after using vinegar to try to control weeds in public parks, but found it to be more costly than glyphosate and a lot more pungent.

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There are new and methods being developed - lasers, microwave radiation, ultra-sonic and robotic weed control - but many are some way off being commercially viable.

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, has partially reintroduced glyphosate for the tea and rubber industries, following a ban in 2015, because of the "economic damage" it has done. However, the government intends to replace it with an organic weedkiller in a few years.

Parliament's special committee on pesticides, set up earlier this year, will quiz Germany's federal agency for risk assessment this week on glyphosate.

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