Glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide in the world, which is of concern since its negative impacts on human health and the environment are well-documented. Exposure to this popular pesticide may cause cancer, according to robust scientific evidence.
And yet, the European Union has started the process to renew its market approval, which is expiring in December 2022. HEAL’s vision is clear: the use of glyphosate must be banned globally and the protection of human and environmental health must come first.
Exposure to glyphosate-based pesticides has been linked to certain types of cancer as well as to adverse effects on human development and hormonal systems. What is of particular concern is that certain health effects associated with the use of glyphosate can also be passed down to other generations. This means that the negative impact(s) of exposure to this toxic pesticide does not stop at one individual’s exposure.
A brief history of the glyphosate renewal process in the European Union
In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the gold standard in identifying carcinogens, concluded that glyphosate “probably causes cancer in humans”.
And yet in late 2016, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that the available evidence did not justify the classification of glyphosate as carcinogenic and that the chemical did not pose any other health risk to human health. In line with EFSA, the hazard assessment of the European Chemical Agency did not consider that the evidence available justified the classification of glyphosate as a carcinogenic substance. These conclusions led to the European Commission to publish an initial proposal to renew the market authorisation of glyphosate for a further fifteen years.
Scientists and civil society groups alike criticised this decision for lacking transparency, scientific objectivity, and for being predominantly based on industry-sponsored studies and conclusions at the expense of academic independent literature. In fact, in 2017 a scandal broke out when it was revealed that major sections of the EU assessment report of glyphosate were copy-pasted directly from industry’s original application.
Concerns over industry’s involvement in the EU renewal process of glyphosate were further reinforced after internal industry documents and emails known as “the Monsanto papers” came to light. The documents were obtained in the course of US litigation cases against agri-giant Monsanto. They revealed that the company had ghostwritten scientific literature to assert glyphosate’s safety, run campaigns to discredit academic scientists, and hidden concerns connecting glyphosate to cancer.
Following the release of these documents, the Association of European Cancer Leagues (ECL) together with HEAL immediately sprang to action by calling on Members of European Parliament to support the creation of an inquiry committee about the possible impacts of Monsanto’s actions on the EU assessments of glyphosate.
Through a European Citizens’ Initiative that was co-initiated by HEAL and several of its partners in 2017, over one million European citizens called on the EU Commission to fully ban glyphosate and to set clear targets towards a pesticide-free future. Supporters of the Citizens’ Initiative also demanded that the scientific evaluation of pesticides for EU regulatory approval be based only on published studies, commissioned by a public authority, in order to safeguard transparency and public scrutiny.
In spite of this massive public outcry, in 2017 representatives of European governments reauthorized glyphosate on the European market until December 2022. While the fifteen-year reauthorization period initially proposed by the European Commission was reduced to five years, industry still obtained another license to keep using glyphosate, leaving people and the environment exposed to this harmful chemical.
On the other side of the Atlantic, more than 100,000 people have already filed lawsuits against Monsanto (now Bayer) in the US, alleging that exposure to the glyphosate-based Roundup causes cancer. So far three cancer lawsuits have gone to trial, with juries returning verdicts of $2.424 billion against Monsanto for compensation and for failing to warn consumers that exposure to Roundup can be associated with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In the meantime, Bayer just announced that it aims at moving away from using glyphosate for residential use in the US from 2023.
Back in Europe, as a result of the public and political outcry caused by the glyphosate process, the European Parliament launched a special committee (the so-called PEST Committee) in February 2018 that was specifically dedicated to the investigation of the European pesticide authorisation process. It proposed 114 recommendations to improve its implementation and to minimise the harm that pesticides cause to people and the environment.
For an in-depth recap of key episodes and events from the glyphosate story over the past six years, visit the explainer from Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), HEAL, GLOBAL 2000 and Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Germany.
Avoiding another glypho-gate: will the EU authorities hit play on a new renewal episode?
The current approval of glyphosate on the EU market is expiring on 15 December 2022. A scientific analysis published in June 2021 revealed that out of the 53 industry-funded genotoxicity studies used for the EU’s 2017 authorisation of glyphosate, only two studies could be identified as “reliable”. What’s more, a first screening of the new glyphosate application dossier submitted by a group of companies seeking the substance renewal (the Glyphosate Renewal Group) shows that all 38 of the genotoxicity studies on “pure” glyphosate that were used in the previous assessment have been submitted once more to the EU authorities.
In June 2021, the four EU member states (France, Hungary, the Netherlands and Sweden), in charge of the preparation of the renewal discussion (the rapporteurs), released a statement which concluded that glyphosate does not pose a risk for human health. This announcement is the founding step in the new safety assessment of glyphosate. HEAL expressed concern at such conclusion, which contradicts all the available scientific evidence about the association between the popular pesticide and the development of cancer, and sends a worrying signal for the future renewal process.
In May 2022, health and environment groups raised alarms over the EU Chemicals Agency’s failure to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen for human health. Glyphosate, according to the agency’s Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC), did not meet the criteria to be labeled as a carcinogenic, genotoxic or reprotoxic agent. RAC’s announcement revealed that all the important evidence and arguments presented by independent scientific experts who were invited by HEAL and the other civil society organisations attending the committee’s meetings had not been properly considered.
This was further illustrated by a HEAL report published in June 2022, which illustrates how the scientific evidence proving that glyphosate is carcinogenic has so far been dismissed in the EU scientific assessment that will form the basis for the re-approval discussion of its EU market license. The serious scientific shortcomings and distortions in the interpretation of EU and international scientific standards highlighted in the report also put into question the validity of the assessment and its preliminary conclusions.
ECHA’s opinion on the hazard classification for glyphosate is a fundamental step in the renewal process of the active substance, in addition to the peer-review of glyphosate’s risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In May 2022, EFSA announced a significant delay for the release of its conclusions. This means that the current glyphosate’s license will inevitably be extended for another year, leaving vulnerable groups at risk of exposure to this harmful pesticide. On the basis of both ECHA’s and EFSA’s opinions, the European Commission and EU member states will take a decision on the requested 15-year renewal license for glyphosate.
Meanwhile, independent scientists from the Ramazzini Institute are bringing together the largest and most comprehensive toxicological study ever undertaken on glyphosate. The first results of the “Global Glyphosate Study” were presented during a special webinar organised by HEAL in collaboration with the Ramazzini Institute in June 2021.
Together with our members, HEAL will continue to advocate on the public health benefits of banning glyphosate and other harmful pesticides across Europe. We will continue to stand with affected farmers, workers, their families and residents suffering from health problems as a result of glyphosate exposure.
To illustrate why the European Commission and governments must ban glyphosate, HEAL published this infographic:
This campaign page will be frequently updated with new resources and updates throughout 2021-2022.