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Glyphosate deemed safe for use in the EU

The European Union has voted to extend the registration of glyphosate, despite a sustained misinformation campaign questioning the product’s safety.

On 27 November 2017 the European Union voted to extend the licence for the herbicide glyphosate for a period of five years. This outcome was welcomed by farming groups around the world as a victory for common sense, which it is on the face of it - providing reprieve on a potentially significant negative outcome.

The reality is this was a compromise on the fifteen year licence extension that is generally considered standard. Already, lobbyists on both sides of the argument are readying themselves to campaign for the extension in five years’ time.

The process to reach this determination was drawn out and subject to significant activism – much of which could best be described as ill-informed with links drawn to product’s use and cancer. This followed a report by the Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which has links to the World Health Organisation, that claimed that glyphosate potentially had carcinogenic qualities similar to that indoor emissions from burning wood, consuming red meat and high temperature frying.

A decision to ban the herbicide could have been potentially devastating for Australian farmers given glyphosate’s widespread use. It is utilised so broadly because science has established that it is safe to use. The product’s safety has been supported by Canada, New Zealand and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), which concluded “that glyphosate does not pose a carcinogenic risk to humans and that there are no grounds to place it under formal reconsideration.”

The irony is, if Glyphosate’s licence had not been extended the EU would have still permitted the import of products treated with arguably more hazardous herbicides.
Mark Harvey-Sutton, Manager, Rural Affairs, National Farmers' Federation

At a practical level, a Maximum Residue Limit of zero would have been impractical for Australian exports. At the diplomatic level, an adverse outcome would have been a needless complication for the EU-Australia Free Trade Agreement progress. This of course does not take into account the environmental benefits of glyphosate as a low-impact weed management tool which provides an alternative to tilling.

The irony is, if Glyphosate’s licence had not been extended the EU would have still permitted the import of products treated with arguably more hazardous herbicides – which is the alternative many Australian farmers would have been forced to adopt had the ban gone ahead.

There are a number learnings we as a sector must take on board as we look to five years ahead:

  • Our global exposure has never been more apparent. The fact that a decision on the other side of the world could impact our on-farm practices is a reality which we must be cognisant of at all times.
  • The process also highlighted the power of public perception and activism, and brought to the fore the fact that farmers should not take their social licence to utilise these tools for granted.
  • As a sector we must always be mindful of consumer perception, and do all in our power (and then some) to ensure that this perception is driven by facts.

Mark Harvey-Sutton is NFF's Manager of Rural Affairs

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