Tomorrow the European Union’s 27 member states will decide whether to authorise the use of the chemical Glyphosate as a pesticide for the next decade.
The vote has already been postponed four times and it has become an increasingly heated topic, dividing governments, scientists and NGOs.
Glyphosate has the highest global production volume of all herbicides, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Found in the weed-killer Roundup, Glyphosate is widely used in gardens and parks but is increasingly being used in agriculture.
The WHO said:
The agricultural use of glyphosate has increased sharply since the development of crops that have been genetically modified to make them resistant to glyphosate.
According to Eric Thirounin, deputy general secretary of the Federation Nationale des Syndicats d’Exploitant Agricoles (FNSEA), two-thirds of French farmers use Glyphosate today, spraying it onto rapeseed, corn, and wheat.
People are exposed to Glyphosate in its residual form and traces of the chemical have been found in bread, cereals and lentils.
The urine samples of a large number of European Members of Parliament were also analysed for the substance and it was detected in almost 100 percent of samples.
Why is it controversial?
In March 2015, the International Centre for Research on Cancer, a branch of the WHO, said the herbicide was “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
As a result, several EU countries want to ban the pesticide. In France, 54 members of president Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party demanded a ban of Glyphosate in the EU as soon as possible, citing the danger to public health.
However, some say an all out ban would be going too far.
The European Food Safety Authority gave a positive recommendation and declared the substance safe to the public, whilst the European Chemical Agency said:
The available scientific evidence did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, as a mutagen or as toxic for reproduction” in March this year.
Greenpeace has though accused the European Chemical Agency as having a conflict of interest.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also said that they did not believe Glyphosate to be carcinogenic.
However the court records from a long-running case involving non-Hodgkins Lymphoma sufferers’ revealed significant debate within the EPA about the safety of the chemical, the New York Times reported earlier this year.
The agency’s office of research and development questioned the robustness of the assessment carried out by its office of pesticide programs.
Macron has weighed in on the debate, calling for independent research to provide valid judgement the danger of Glyphosate, suggesting the current research had been influenced by big business and subject to lobbying.
Meanwhile, those that use the pesticide, French farmers, are fiercely against the ban, saying that there is no equivalent weed-killer.
The farmers argue the only alternative to the pesticide is using tractors to remove the weeds and this would have environmental consequences of its own, through soil erosion and greenhouse gas production.