American agricultural giant Monsanto thought it was on a glide path to EU renewal of its controversial weedkiller Roundup.
It was wrong.
Advocacy groups seized on a routine World Health Organization report from last year, which connected the active ingredient in Roundup to cancer, to inflame politicians. They generated enough outcry to prompt key players, including Germany and France, to publicly back away from what the industry and the European Commission thought would be a no-hassle vote after food safety officials declared in November that the pesticide is safe to use across Europe, as it has been for decades.
Those NGOs and their backers are declaring victory this week following a vote on the chemical’s future that ended in a deadlock. The Commission is scrambling to figure out how to keep Europe’s most widely used herbicide on the market to make a June 30 license expiration. It could face a raft of lawsuits from agriculture heavyweights if it fails to pass an extension.
“Less than six months ago, the member states and the Commission still thought it would be a piece of cake to reauthorize glyphosate in the EU,” French Green MEP Michèle Rivasi said. “We proved them wrong.”
The left-leaning groups’ ability to mobilize political opposition to an industrial giant fits a pattern. They are gaining strength in public debates as well as national politics, with their work also evident in the Commission’s flagging effort to secure a mammoth free trade deal with the U.S. The fight underscores a challenge facing big institutions and their ability to adapt quickly to deal with insurgent campaigns fueled by social media and savvy NGOs.
The Commission could issue the renewal without public support — and wind up bolstering the image of top-down governance that doesn’t consider populist views.
Its next attempt to extend glyphosate’s use is slated for the same day as the U.K. referendum on EU membership, June 23, or the next day. Stubborn opposition from many countries that has stalled renewal three times is not expected to change, and glyphosate could very well inch closer to its EU death.
Under Commission rules, the majority of member countries representing at least 65 percent of the population need to sign on, a benchmark it failed to reach this week.
“We hope that this situation of the glyphosate will be a type of learning case of the Commission,” European Crop Protection Association Director General Jean-Charles Bocquet said. “This one is the type of precedent on which we need to really build to avoid that in the future.”
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has been pushing countries to be more accountable for EU actions and avoid hiding behind the Commission on politically unpopular decisions. Juncker could override member countries and reauthorize glyphosate without their backing, but thus far that is something he hasn’t wanted to do.
“Member states should take their own responsibilities and not try to hide behind the Commission,” one Commission official said earlier this week, echoing the recent exasperation.
Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis told his fellow 27 commissioners Tuesday that he had been privately contacted by the governments of France, Germany and Italy ahead of the vote urging the Commission to move forward with the reauthorization without their support.
According to sources familiar with the meeting, he blamed the three for silently supporting the pesticide but publicly blaming the Commission.
Gift from WHO
The Commission’s predicament in large part stems from a March 2015 report from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, released as the EU was nearing the end of a standard review of the chemical, which happens every 15 years.
German authorities had said in January 2014 that the pesticide was safe when used as intended, and the European Food Safety Agency was reviewing those findings to make a recommendation to the Commission.
The WHO agency report proved caustic. The March paper handed opponents of pesticides in agriculture a gift with its conclusion that the weedkiller is a probable cause of cancer in humans. Those findings were tucked into a larger report with four other pesticides — just another regular release for the agency.
Environmentalists seized upon the findings to fuel their push for a ban with regulators in the EU and United States, where the pesticide is also under review. Advocacy groups Avaaz and Green 10 met with Andriukaitis’ staff on glyphosate in June 2015, according to meeting logs.
The loud and instantaneous response took the WHO agency by surprise.
A spokeswoman said reports on cancer can attract attention but “the level of interest in the evaluation of glyphosate has been exceptionally high, probably because of the reauthorization process underway in the EU and the USA.”
But the report didn’t appear to sway the European Food Safety Authority. In November, it concluded glyphosate is safe at the level at which Europeans are exposed to it. The agency called for reauthorization and the Commission issued a proposal for a full 15-year renewal.
Monsanto and the other companies that sell glyphosate in Europe thought they were in the homestretch. They assumed the Commission would rely on this analysis, which included reviews of scientific and industry-backed reports, according to an industry source familiar with the process.
Advocacy groups turned to their members to lobby lawmakers in national capitals and Brussels to reject the proposal, arguing that EFSA’s work was too influenced by the industry, said Bert Wander, campaign director for Avaaz, a member-funded group with roots in MoveOn.org and which works to launch online petitions.
Protesters dressed as bottles of Roundup and called for officials in Paris, Berlin and Brussels to ban the chemical at rallies this spring. Avaaz also launched a petition urging the EU to “immediately suspend approval of glyphosate.” More than 2 million people signed on.
Their efforts have been effective but inexpensive. Wander said that the Avaaz campaign consisted mostly of member outreach as well as some advertising, including on POLITICO.eu. One ad touts the group’s petition and other public opinion surveys on glyphosate, with an image of a skull and crossbones carved into an apple and the catchphrase “We are not lab rats.”
“The campaigns did have a lot of influence over left-wing parties who are currently under pressure from populist parties within their countries,” said an EU diplomat.
The French government needed little convincing. Socialist Environment Minister Ségolène Royal has long expressed concern about glyphosate and called for pulling mixtures and certain other chemicals from the market due to health concerns in February.
And once Royal went public, it soon became clear France was going to vote against, or abstain with the same effect. France’s objection swayed Italy — which typically takes Paris’ lead — into siding against renewal, an EU official said.
Advocacy groups celebrated when the Commission wound up scrapping a planned March vote of member states for reauthorization.
“Rushing to grant a new licence now, without waiting for an evaluation by Europe’s chemical agency, would be like skydiving without checking your equipment first,” Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace’s director for EU food policy, said in a statement at the time. “As long as there is conflicting scientific advice, glyphosate should not be approved for use in the EU. And countries would be better advised to do without it.”
The Commission had not lost hope, tweaking the proposal to appease different countries, including one for Germany calling for greater biodiversity protections.
Public opinion was not in Roundup’s favor. In April, a YouGov poll of 7,000 people concluded that two-thirds of Europeans supported a ban.
The weedkiller has become a victim of its own success. Residues of the chemical are everywhere, in food and rivers, in human blood and even, as some advocacy groups claim, in breast milk. To emphasize that point, 48 Green MEPs had their urine tested following an April vote calling on the Commission to reauthorize the chemical for only seven years instead of 15. All of the tests came back positive.
“I really am peed off,’” said MEP Keith Taylor, a member of the Greens on the environment and health committee, in a statement following the release of the results. “Our urine test might seem like an attention-grabbing stunt, but it has proved our worst fears about glyphosate, which is that it really is everywhere.”
Meanwhile the industry was quietly lobbying its way with commission officials.
Representatives from the industry have met twice with Andriukaitis’ staff this year. In January, the industry-funded Glyphosate Task Force’s lobbyists from Hume Brophy, paid his office a visit, while representatives from Monsanto and Syngenta went in late May, according to meeting records.
Monsanto declined to comment on the record for this article. In a statement Monday, the company called for the Commission to follow the recommendations of the European Food Safety Agency, arguing that “regulatory decisions should be based on the best available science.”
When the Commission finally scheduled a vote in late May on a new proposal for a nine-year extension, with recommendations for restrictions on the pesticide’s use in residential areas and public parks, it was confident that Germany would be on board and other countries would fall in line. They didn’t.
Hours before member countries had to submit a response to the Commission’s plan, Germany’s environment minister issued a statement making her position clear.
“NEIN,” began a long statement issued from Barbara Hendricks, a member of the Social Democratic Party, adding that her entire party, the junior partner in the German governing coalition, would not back renewal.
When the vote was finally held this week on a short-term extension until the end of 2017, the measure failed after Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Portugal and Luxembourg abstained. Only Malta voted against.
“I don’t think they expected this,” Avaaz’s Wander said of the Commission. Support for his NGO’s petition proves that people “want their decision-makers to make decisions that err on the side of caution,” he added.
“I think that for the industry in particular, this is their worst nightmare,” Wander continued. “This has gone from being a fringe issue to a mainstream issue. People across Europe are writing to their governments … and saying we are very, very worried.”
Natalie Huet contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: An earlier version included a quote from Greenpeace’s EU food policy director from the wrong month. In addition, an earlier version may have overstated the presence of glyphosate in breast milk.