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Food Safety: Glyphosate

Volume 769: debated on Monday 21 March 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the European Union Ombudsman’s finding of maladministration by the European Commission over pesticides, published on 22 February, and given that several EU countries including France, the Netherlands and Sweden have indicated that they will not support an assessment by the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) that glyphosate is harmless, whether they support the EFSA view that that chemical should receive a licence for a further 15 years.

My Lords, the Government support pesticide use where scientific evidence shows that this is not expected to harm people or to have unacceptable effects on the environment. UK experts participated in the European Food Safety Authority’s assessment of glyphosate and support its conclusions, particularly that glyphosate does not cause cancer. The Government therefore support the continuing approval of glyphosate. If glyphosate is approved, we will review the authorisations of glyphosate products, to ensure that they meet current standards.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. Is she aware that the World Health Organization’s IARC has found glyphosate to be a probable carcinogen? Research over the last 20 years has found that it is genotoxic, cytotoxic, is an endocrine disrupter and is a powerful chelator—in other words, it blocks out the essential minerals and trace elements from our food.

The European Union looked only at glyphosate, whereas the World Health Organization looked at the commercial formulation and found that some of the additives make it 10,000 times more powerful as a poison than the original glyphosate itself. The authorisation in this country, by the Chemical Regulations Directorate, is for the commercial formulation. Will the noble Baroness ask the directorate to look very carefully at the distribution of glyphosate and perhaps restrict it, like other organophosphates, to professional agricultural and horticultural use and remove it from domestic use?

I thank the noble Countess for her Question and I know she has been at the forefront of looking into all pesticides. If the European Commission approves glyphosate, the UK will be required to reassess every product containing the substance, and these products will get new authorisation only if they fully meet current safety standards. But I should add that there is a hold-up with the licensing process. The European Chemicals Agency is to come out with a report next year and several member states have stated that they would like to see that report before licensing glyphosate. If there is not a vote before June, glyphosate will not be licensed and it will be withdrawn over a period of time to allow manufacturers to replace it.

My Lords, given that laboratory tests show that caffeine is 10 times more carcinogenic than glyphosate, that glyphosate is non-volatile and non-persistent, and that it has made a significant contribution to eliminating hunger and malnutrition from large parts of the world, and indeed to improving the environment through no-till agriculture, will my noble friend the Minister encourage the European food standards agency to stick to its guns?

What my noble friend says is true. There are arguments for glyphosate. It is highly effective. It adds to the yields. You need to sow less, which leaves more headland, hedges, et cetera, for the environment. What my noble friend says is certainly true.

My Lords, there is a dispute among scientists about glyphosate. As I think the noble Countess alluded to, the International Agency for Research on Cancer last year said that products containing glyphosate are “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Is it the case, as is being alleged, that some of the research that the European food standards agency is relying on has not been published or peer-reviewed? Should not such research studies and reports be in the public domain so that all those who are experts can look at them and assess them?

UK experts certainly participated in the EFSA’s detailed review of the health data. The EFSA concluded that,

“glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard”.

and we agree with that conclusion. A wealth of studies is taking place. There have been huge studies in America and studies in various places in the world. From all these studies, the majority of experts concluded that there was very little evidence for an association between glyphosate-based formulations and cancer.

Is my noble friend aware that the branded product in the UK for use in gardens has been on the market since the 1970s? Is it not unbelievable now, with the evidence from Europe, that this product, in its slightly diluted format for people to use in their gardens, can possibly be causing any real problems?

What my noble friend says is true. Each pesticide has specific conditions of authorisation, which are set out on its label. The level of safety must be achieved without reliance on training or special equipment. As my noble friend says, for domestic use glyphosate is very much diluted and comes mainly in trigger packs, which means that it is very safe for use.

My Lords, in the light of the conflicting research which I think has been acknowledged exists on this matter, is not the common-sense approach to apply the precautionary principle, given the potential danger? Should we not only take immediate steps in any way we can to limit the use of glyphosate but make sure that the public are much more aware of the potential threat to their health, while the ongoing research and licensing process is reviewed?

If the European Commission approves glyphosate, all member states will be required to reassess every single product that contains it. These products would get new authorisation only if they fully meet current safety standards. We will not know what is going to happen until we know more about whether the European Commission will vote before June. If it does not vote before June, the licence will not be allowed in this country.