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House of Lords Hansard
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31 October 2018
Volume 793

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the safety implications for consumers of the retail sale of weed-killers such as Roundup; and whether they will introduce legislation to address any risks.

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My Lords, there is robust EU and UK law on the use of weedkillers. The Government will always base their assessments of safety on the best scientific evidence available. Clearly, users of Roundup and other weedkillers should always read the instructions and use the product responsibly, and in accordance with the instructions, as indeed they should for many other household products.

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I thank the Minister for his reply. I am sure that it is general knowledge that the landmark verdict in a case in the United States was that Roundup and glyphosate herbicides can cause cancer, and Monsanto has acted with “malice and oppression” by selling it in full awareness of the risks. Given that here in the UK farmers have to keep such pesticides under lock and key in a steel cupboard, how can it be all right to sell it freely in the supermarkets on open shelves? Is that not a risk for both shoppers and workers?

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My Lords, the recent case was a civil court case with a non-expert jury. There was no new scientific evidence presented regarding safety as part of the court case, and so it does not raise doubts about the scientific assessments underpinning the EU approval decision. Of course, we have in this country, and through the EU as well, very strict rules about authorisations and approvals. There are many requirements for Roundup, and it is important that it is used responsibly, but it is safe.

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My Lords, the European Chemicals Agency has ruled that Roundup and glyphosates are not carcinogens. Against that background, will my noble friend continue to ensure that the Government use independent scientific advice to enable the farmer to use crop protection to protect against pests that will otherwise damage crops?

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My noble friend encapsulates what is so important on this issue: the Government and indeed, through the EU, act on the expert opinion of scientists. That is the only way in which we can base this. It is important for farmers and indeed for those of us seeking to deal with ground elder and other weeds. We want to move to greater precision-farming and innovation, and agri-tech will help with that.

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There are many species in Britain that threaten our environment. The Minister has just mentioned ground elder, and Roundup can be used to tackle such things as Japanese knotweed. Can he update us on the Government’s latest position on the application of weedkillers to tackle that problem?

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The noble Lord has again highlighted why they should be properly used. I have the instructions for Roundup, which should be properly adhered to in order to ensure the safety of people using it. It is really important for coping and dealing with Japanese knotweed, which is one of the most invasive plants. That is why in many instances, when used properly, we need this material.

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My Lords, I remind the noble Lord that glyphosate was initially registered as a very powerful chelator, which means that it blocks out essential minerals and elements from plant systems. Secondly, it was registered as an antibiotic, so it kills off micro-organisms in the soil. Thirdly, it was registered as a weedkiller. All those factors have an effect on what we eat every day. Finland, which has a no-till policy using glyphosate, has found that over the last three years crop levels have fallen, and that there has been an increase in infertility in men and women. Will the noble Lord bear that in mind when recommending the ubiquitous use of Roundup?

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We all need to use pesticides responsibly and carefully—all farmers are conscious of this—and we want to move to a position where we use them less, but we do need to use them. I say again that the EU, the European Food Safety Authority, the European Chemicals Agency and our own, very well respected agencies, have all said that glyphosate is considered safe to use.

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My Lords, I lost a crop in my garden last year as the result of the use of Roundup in an adjacent field, and, more seriously, I lost a cousin in the United States, the late Owen Wigley, whose family believes that his death was caused largely by Roundup. Is it not appropriate that the Government should use the precautionary principle in dealing with this substance?

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Clearly, it is important that sprays and products are used in conditions that do not cause them to go on to other people’s property, and that they are used with precision. However, glyphosate is authorised because all the scientific evidence of all the experts on which we rely is that it is not in this case carcinogenic. Indeed, another agency, the WHO, does not agree with the agency that says that it is.

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As has been said, glyphosate is an active ingredient found in the weedkiller Roundup and has been a source of controversy amid claims that it is connected to certain kinds of cancer. Oatmeal and other breakfast cereal crops are often sprayed with this chemical. What in-depth research are the Government doing to ensure public safety, both now and after 29 March?

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All this area is hugely important as a priority, both now and after we leave the European Union. Public safety will always be the prime consideration, and this would not be authorised if it was deemed to be unsafe.

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The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, referred to the precautionary principle, which as we know has been fundamental to EU regulation. Can the Minister confirm that when we leave the EU, we will apply the same precaution to risks to human health? In the event of a no-deal outcome, will a statutory watchdog be in place on day one to uphold environmental standards so that we can be reassured?

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My Lords, obviously, whatever happens, the HSE and the UK expert committee on pesticides will be advising the Government. We are working with the HSE and other agencies to develop a new regulatory body. However, in the meantime, we have expert committees on which we rely and in which we place our trust.