Debate over use of glyphosate goes on

Reapproval for weedkiller could take another six months.

Roundup: further debate on use of active ingredient
Roundup: further debate on use of active ingredient

The debate over the future of the weedkiller glyphosate is far from settled despite the European Chemical Agency's (ECHA) decision that the chemical is not carcinogenic.

The European Commission extended glyphosate's pending approval late last year in the hope that the ECHA's opinion would resolve conflicting scientific views over its carcinogenicity classification. But reapproval of the chemical still has months of discussion to go.

Crop Protection Association (CPA) spokesman Adam Speed says: "As I understand it the ECHA classification will be formally submitted to the European Commission in the next four-to-six weeks. That starts a-six month clock ticking for the commission to facilitate reapproval. It is likely that it will go to the standing committee for discussion in May and a vote in July. If there's no qualified majority again then it will be up to the commission to decide."

The CPA says the commission should "reauthorise glyphosate for the standard 15-year period". In June 2016, the EC approved glyphosate use within the EU for a maximum of 18 months, rather than the usual 15 years.

Hazard assessments

While most of the previous evaluations of glyphosate were risk assessments, both the International Agency for Research on Cancer's (IARC) positive assessment of glyphosate as a cancer risk and the ECHA's recent evaluation, which came to the opposite conclusion, were hazard assessments.

A risk assessment takes a known hazard and evaluates its impact in real-world situations, taking into account such factors as dose/concentration, exposure pathways and probability of exposure. The aim is to determine the likelihood that any given hazard will actually pose a risk of harm. A hazard assessment is the first in a series of steps to assess the danger a substance or activity might pose under a particular circumstance.

Like the IARC, the ECHA performed the hazard-type evaluation of glyphosate and found no evidence that the herbicide qualifies as a cancer hazard. The ECHA risk assessment committee "concluded that the available scientific evidence did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, as a mutagen or as toxic for reproduction".

Evaluating cancer risk

Over the past two years the US Environmental Protection Agency, European Food Safety Authority, UN/World Health Organization, German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety & Health to the European Chemicals Agency as well as New Zealand's Environmental Protection Authority have all found that glyphosate poses no cancer risk.

Despite this extensive list of regulatory and public health agencies to have evaluated glyphosate and determined that it is not a carcinogen, re-approval of glyphosate's use in Europe has been hotly debated, primarily because of a 2015 monograph by the IARC. HTA horticulture director Raoul Curtis-Machin says: "We welcome the classification of the ECHA."

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