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Why the EU's Debating a Ban on Weedkiller in Roundup

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The European Union faces a consequential decision over glyphosate, one of the world’s most widely used weedkillers. The debate over the chemical pits the farm industry against campaigners who say it poses environmental and health risks. EU nations are poised to vote this week on whether farmers can keep using it for another decade. A ban could cost the French and U.K. agriculture sectors about $1 billion each. The herbicide is used in popular products made by firms such as Monsanto Co., and the EU accounts for about one-sixth of glyphosate use.

1. What is glyphosate?

Used for more than four decades, glyphosate is present in hundreds of plant-protection products in Europe. Agriculture accounts for the bulk of global demand. The chemical is mainly used to combat weeds but also helps crops dry and ripen. As consumption has soared, traces of the chemical have been found in foods including breakfast cereals and cookies, while residues have also been detected in water, soil, drinks and human urine.

2. Why is it controversial?

The use of glyphosate has long been challenged. There are concerns about its impact on the environment and health, with the United Nations’ International Agency for Research on Cancer classifying it as “probably carcinogenic.” That view is disputed by the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency. As public distrust of crop chemicals grows, more consumer firms are pushing for sustainably sourced ingredients. For example, Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s has pledged to make its ice cream glyphosate-free. 

3. What’s the situation in the EU?

In June 2016, the European Commission temporarily prolonged the license for glyphosate use for 18 months, pending more scientific analysis and following a split by member nations over a proposed nine-year extension. That followed a six-month prolongation that prevented the license from expiring as originally scheduled in December 2015. The current license expires Dec. 15.

4. What happens next?

The commission’s standing committee on plants, animals, food and feed has scheduled a vote among member states for Wednesday. At least 15 nations representing more than 65 percent of the EU’s population must vote in favor for a proposal to pass. France, Italy and Austria are among countries that have said they won’t vote for a 10-year license renewal. Even if the license is allowed to expire, member states may be able to request some exemptions from a ban, and the commission could propose a shorter renewal period with usage restrictions.

5. What’s the potential impact on agriculture?

There is no direct alternative for glyphosate and using other chemicals as a substitute would be potentially less effective, said Graeme Taylor, director of public affairs at the European Crop Protection Association, which counts Monsanto as a member. A report by French research institute Arvalis suggested a ban would cost the country’s agriculture industry 976 million euros ($1.1 billion). Germany’s Kleffmann Group said restrictions could hurt barley and corn output the most as farmers switch to other, more profitable crops. Banning glyphosate could cut U.K. wheat output by one-fifth, Germany’s Crop Protection Association said. Lobby groups have warned that consumer prices may rise if crop yields decline.

6. Which companies would be affected by a ban?

Monsanto makes Roundup, a popular weedkiller containing glyphosate, and controls about 40 percent of the global market for the substance. Other companies selling products containing the chemical include Bayer AG, BASF Corp. and Syngenta AG.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg Businessweek story examines the relationship of glyphosate and cancer.
  • The European Food Safety Authority’s page on glyphosate.
  • A report by the European Parliament’s Policy Department on risks posed by glyphosate.
  • A link to an Oct. 11 public hearing at the European Parliament on glyphosate safety.

— With assistance by Jonathan Stearns

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