Farmers have been spraying the weedkiller glyphosate on their fields for decades. It’s cheap and effective – German railway Deutsche Bahn, for example, uses 75 metric tonnes (82.7 tons) per year to keep weeds off its tracks. But it has been dogged by persistent fears that it may cause cancer, and the EU looks likely to refuse to renew its license when it expires at the end of this year.
A new round of EU talks on re-authorizing glyphosate will start today, with farming industry bodies across Europe up in arms at the increasingly real prospect that it may be banned in a few months. “I fear that there won’t be a clear majority for a new license in the upcoming vote by EU member states,” said Peter Liese, a member of the European Parliament’s environment committee. Worse for the industry, insiders fear a move against glyphosate may just be the start of something bigger, with politicians training their sights on other agro-chemicals out of political, rather than scientific, grounds.
Though no decision is expected today, France has already made clear it opposes glyphosate. Austria will only give its blessing under strict new conditions. And Germany is on the fence – Berlin’s outgoing government abstained in previous votes because it was divided. The agriculture ministry, run by the conservative Christian Social Union, was in favor while the environment ministry, led by the center-left Social Democrats, was opposed.
And Germany will likely have to keep on abstaining in the wake of the September 24, general election because the most likely new coalition, an alliance among conservatives, environmentalists Greens and pro-business Free Democrats, probably won’t agree on a common position. Without Germany, there won’t be a qualified EU majority for a new license.
Meanwhile, the public row over glyphosate is intensifying. The weedkiller, launched in 1973 by US agrochemicals group Monsanto, has become a front line between NGOs and industry. Greenpeace and other environmental groups want it outlawed because they don’t believe the cancer fears have been disproved and point to a verdict by the World Health Organization that it’s “probably carcinogenic.”
But the chemical industry doesn’t agree. “Glyphosate is one of the best-researched chemicals,” said Kurt Bock, CEO of German chemicals giant BASF, who is also the president of the VCI German chemical industry association. No study has proven the weedkiller is unsafe, he said, while others have pointed out that the WHO list of carcinogenic substances also includes red meat, even though this may only be true at very high levels of consumption.
The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has undertaken fresh research into glyphosate on behalf of the EU and concluded that if used properly, there’s no discernible cancer risk for humans. The European Food Safety Authority concurred with that assessment. But environmental groups have questioned the reliability of the new report, accusing the BfR of copying a study by glyphosate inventor Monsanto. The general public meanwhile doesn’t know what to believe.
A ban on glyphosate in Europe wouldn’t have a major impact on the big German agrochemical firms Bayer and BASF because they don’t produce it. Even Monsanto, which is in the process of being acquired by Bayer in a $66 billion deal, wouldn’t suffer a major hit. Analyst Jonas Oxgaard of investment firm Bernstein estimated that a ban would cost Monsanto less than $100 million in profits. It generates an estimated $3 billion in revenue from glyphosate and sells most of it in North and South America where it remains in strong demand.
Sources at Bayer said that its merger plans wouldn’t be affected if the EU refused to renew the license. But other makers of the chemical, which has been off-patent for the last 17 years, would be hit, especially Chinese firms that have established themselves as the main suppliers in Europe.
In fact, agrochemicals firms such as BASF could profit from a ban if it forces farmers to use other weedkillers. The producers would have to choose between more expensive and less effective weedkillers or spend time physically removing weeds with ploughs, which would increase fuel costs and raise the specter of soil erosion.
And winemakers have warned that without glyphosate, it will be all but impossible for them to treat the soil in steep-sloping vineyards. That’s why agricultural researchers at the University of Göttingen have recommended relicensing glyphosate but limiting its use.
Farmer Jochen Hartmann, whose farm in the village of Rettmer has won government funding because of its contribution to biodiversity, uses glyphosate himself and said farmers were already starting to use it more cautiously. He urged authorities to find a compromise, for example by allowing its continued use over a transition period.
“After that, farmers must be given help to find alternative methods,” said Mr. Hartmann, whose family has tilled the fields of Rettmer for 19 generations.
An outright ban of the weedkiller would be dangerous, he warned. “It would only lead to farmers using other chemicals that aren’t necessarily any better.”
Bert-Friedrich Fröndhoff leads a team of reporters that covers the chemicals, health care and services industries at Handelsblatt. Silke Kersting covers politics for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com