Amenity businesses breathed a sigh of relief last week when glyphosate's license was temporarily reauthorised in the EU by the European Commission just one day before it was due to expire.
The controversial weedkiller is the most frequently used herbicide in the world and the EU, but it has been subject to heavy scrutiny since a World Health Organization agency decided in 2015 that the chemical poses a cancer risk.
While other agencies say the herbicide is safe, and farming and horticulture industry groups and manufacturers have lobbied heavily for renewal, the public and non-government organisations have been increasingly vocal in calling for it to be banned. The issue became a political football, with European member states unable to agree on whether to renew the chemical's license.
The European Commission pulled out all the stops to help states reach a decision, but on 29 June had to resort to granting a last-minute temporary authorisation itself, with commissioner for health and food safety Vytenis Andriukaitis citing "legal obligations". It has been suggested that manufacturers such as Monsanto and Syngenta could have sued the commission had the license been allowed to expire on 30 June without a decision.
Andriukaitis linked glyphosate to wider conversations around food scarcity and food waste. Sustainable plant protection and integrated pest management are needed to ensure food security, with non-chemical and biological controls part of the solution, he said. He appeared to include glyphosate in an arsenal of low-risk products he felt states should make widely available.
The temporary license lasts 18 months at most, giving time for the European Chemical Agency to conclude its review into the chemical. Several member states reportedly felt it was inappropriate to make a decision before the agency has decided whether the substance is carcinogenic.
But extending glyphosate's license does not stop member states from banning or restricting use of the chemical in their own countries. France has said it will ban the weedkiller.
Business as usual
The decision means it is "business as usual" for the next 18 months for those who use and sell glyphosate, according to the Amenity Forum, which represents those in the UK pesticide sector. "The delays in the process have had substantial impact on all aspects of our very important and essential sector and made decision-making very difficult," said forum chairman John Moverley.
"Due to the delayed decision, one of our members has had to make preparations to cancel weed-control work as they were unable to commit to being able to continue spraying. It's been extremely stressful for all that use glyphosate. Other members have been affected in terms of quoting for future contracts for weed control on our public transport networks, essential for public safety. Not knowing if glyphosate might be available has created real difficulties and concerns.
"Those involved in invasive weed control have wondered how they might operate and undertake this essential task.
It has been made even more difficult for all involved in the sector to understand the delays given that, following the rigorous process of reapproval, the outcome was the conclusion that glyphosate was safe to use and should be reapproved. The ensuing political arguments bringing matters to a last-minute decision have not been pretty and had serious consequences."
National Contractors' Forum chairman Phil Jones has previously raised concerns about the uncertainty of the glyphosate vote, though he was optimistic about contractors' ability to innovate and "get ahead of the legislation", especially as more councils require their grounds maintenance teams to offer glyphosate alternatives.
Task force responds
The Glyphosate Task Force, representing manufacturers, said a sudden expiration of the approval "would have entailed serious consequences" for European farmers who rely on glyphosate. "The antagonism that has emerged from certain member states regarding glyphosate renewal is highly regrettable and a sad sign of how politically charged these processes have become," said task force chairman Richard Garnett.
The group also warned that the short extension of approval, rather than a 15-year reauthorisation, set an "unwelcome precedent", adding: "It is clear that certain member states are no longer basing their positions on scientific evidence, which is meant to be the guiding principle."
Monsanto spokesman Gary Philpotts said the extension seems like a good outcome but the renewal process has been "derailed" by anti-pesticide activists. While the extension was "the only logical course" for the commission to take, it brings into question what purpose expert scientific bodies within the EU serve if member states choose to completely ignore them, he added.
Philpotts hopes the next year will provide an opportunity for "common sense and the scientific evidence to prevail in this prolonged and irrational process. If not, the negative consequences for farmers, horticulture and garden owners cannot be underestimated."
Campaign groups were disappointed by the decision, but pleased it was only for 18 months. Greenpeace has called for the EU to create an "exit strategy" to wean farmers off glyphosate.
Member states' lack of urgency over the matter was incredibly frustrating, said Ground Control national training manager and BALI technical director Neil Huck, who has been following the process closely. "They left it to the 11th hour. The member states weren't prepared to make a decision, even though people's jobs were on the line."
Restrictions may yet be applied to the new license. POE-tallowamine, a common co-formulant in glyphosate-based products, is believed to be toxic and the commission has proposed a ban on its use. It also wants glyphosate use minimised in public parks, playgrounds and gardens, as well as minimised pre-harvest use. Member states are discussing these recommendations.
Few in the industry use POE-tallowamine so that will have little impact, said Huck. But there is still uncertainty in the sector over the "very vague" wording on minimising use in public areas, which could mean major changes for the sector.
Scientific work on glyphosate is ongoing. The European Food Safety Authority is reviewing the existing maximum residue levels for glyphosate - the highest level of residue that is legally tolerated in or on food or feed. The commission can also review the approval of glyphosate at any time in case new relevant science comes to light.