Filter out the noise, and there it is: Science is poised to trump emotion in Europe — at least when it comes to glyphosate.
Despite fears that European farmers would lose the active after regulators failed to renew its reauthorization and instead issued an 18-month extension until the end of 2017, saying they needed additional data, it appears its future on the continent is solid.
It was IARC’s classification of glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen” that grabbed all the headlines — never mind that mainstream media, more often than not, omitted the fact that IARC places things like red meat, barbeques, and the hairdressing profession into the same category.
But the classification that carries real weight came down in March. That decision, from the European Chemicals Agency’s (ECHA) Risk Assessment Committee, concluded that the available scientific evidence “did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, as a mutagen or as toxic for reproduction.”
What is ECHA’s Risk Assessment Committee (RAC) exactly, and why is its determination so important? First, RAC is comprised of members from nearly all EU member states, who are nominated by the states and then appointed by the managing board of ECHA. They act as individual scientists and not on behalf of member states, RAC Chairman Tim Bowmer explained in a press briefing.
“Because of that construction, which is part of the REACH regulation, they have an independent opinion to give and I think that’s what they have done today (in concluding glyphosate is not a carcinogen,)” he said.
ECHA’s classification, together with the European Food Safety Authority’s risk assessment in late 2015 that also concluded glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans, are poised to form the basis of the European Commission’s decision whether to renew glyphosate for another 15 years.
ECHA’s classification is in the process of being finalized and will be submitted to the Commission – most likely in April 2017 — whose decision should then come within six months.
Greenlighting glyphosate “would be the logical step, if (the Commission) bases their decision on risk management on data, evidence, and science,” Jean-Philippe Azoulay, Chairman of the European Crop Protection Agency, tells AgriBusiness Global.
He says he is confident that Europe will make a science-based decision.
“I’m optimistic about the future of glyphosate … Glyphosate enables green farming. I think this is going to be rediscovered once we get past the hype and noise following, hopefully, the reauthorization. I think the argument will be easier to make with less emotions,” Azoulay says. “I think the fact that the compound is safe, and has completely changed the way farmers are farming with no tillage and direct planting is going to be recognized more and more as we go into a more detailed debate on sustainable farming and good farming practices.”
It’s not that there are no lingering concerns — there are. It was political pressure that led to the extension put on glyphosate’s reauthorization in the first place, as well as the suspension placed on neonicotinoids for the past three years.
If regulators cave to political pressure, Azoulay says, the entire system loses credibility. “Our citizens, who do they trust — the next Twitter account? We have to be very responsible in the way we treat our experts and our agencies.”
NEONIC FUTURE UNCERTAIN
The path for neonicotinoids is nowhere near as certain, however.
In late March, a proposal came on the table from the Commission to expand the partial moratorium of the past three years to a complete ban, except in greenhouse crop applications, of the three key neonicotinoids: clothianidin, thiamethoxam, and imidacloprid. The draft regulations are set to be evaluated at the Commission’s next standing meeting in April 2017, and would come into force this year if they’re approved by a majority of EU member states.
“How far is the Commission willing to go in being the ‘bad guy’ in the story? I’m a bit concerned there will be some compensating — ‘glyphosate came out OK, therefore we are going to be careful on neonics even if we don’t have evidence for it, so we don’t look too bad,’” Azoulay says. “This is more my personal fear.”
Although it has not been revealed on which data the latest proposal is based, industry experts believe the Commission is relying on the European Food Safety Authority’s Bee Guidance Document, which was released in 2013 and never approved by the European Council.
“The Guidance Document was published under heavy pressure. It was not validated and was never approved by a standing committee, and it’s completely unrealistic,” says Azoulay, who explains that the conditions and demands were incredibly stringent, requiring testing of neonicotinoids over very large areas and under which most crop protection products would not pass.
The Commission’s own research, ironically, contradicts the Guidance Document. On Jan. 11, the Commission’s Joint Research Centre presented the main conclusions of its ex-post neonicotinoid study to the European Parliament, concluding that the temporary precautionary ban has not improved bee health but has led to increased costs to farmers and risks to crops and the environment.
Azoulay adds: “We’ve lost a million tons of oilseed rape, (and the moratorium has caused) caused 900 million euros of economic impact. The result is we have to import oilseed rape from Ukraine, Russia, and other countries where they use neonicotinoids, and they don’t have issues with bees and also export honey to Europe,” he says. “The whole thing doesn’t add up; it’s bizarre.” •