Paul's Column: the glyphosate controversy

10 October 2017

Last night in the European Parliament I attended what the colourful entry in my MEP’s diary had down as a ‘Glyphosate dinner’. Glyphosate is a weed killer extensively used by farmers but also by the UK public as it is the active ingredient in Roundup, the brand which is widely used by gardeners to deal with weeds.

The dinner was organised by the National Farmers Union for England and Wales (NFU) which I’ve had a lot to do with over the last three years as a consequence of being on both the Agriculture and Environment committees of the European Parliament.

In all my dealings with the NFU I’ve found their representatives to be friendly, informed and down to earth.  They can be robust when they see fit, but they don’t mind if you disagree with them, as long as you are willing to engage, take their issues seriously and are reasonably well informed about the issues yourself.  They don’t represent all farmers, but with around 55,000 members they are the UK’s biggest farming union with sister unions in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The NFU, and in my experience farmers generally, speak highly of Nick Brown, MP for Newcastle East, from his time as farming minister in the Blair government during the awful foot and mouth episode, an example of their willingness to engage with Labour on a practical level.  While farmers may be inclined to vote Conservative rather than Labour (I’m not sure there is any accurate research to back this up, but it’s the received wisdom) I’ve always found that the NFU will deal with us Labour politicians on a constructive and regular basis.

The NFU organised the glyphosate dinner as the Europe wide licence for glyphosate is up for renewal and there is controversy in the air. Recently the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IRAC) stated that glyphosate is ‘probably carcinogenic’ to humans.  Understandably this put the cat amongst the pigeons and the European Commission hit the ‘pause’ button and renewed glyphosate’s licence for only 18 months pending a study from the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).

In March 2017 the ECHA concluded that the available scientific evidence did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen.  As it happens, MEPs are not going to be the ones who vote and decide whether glyphosate should now get the ten year reauthorisation proposed by the Commission and requested by European farmers.  Rather it will be the member states of the EU gathered in the Standing Committee for Plants, Animals, Food and Feed.  A caveat from the Commission is that should any new evidence come to light relating to the possible dangers of glyphosate it will immediately reassess the authorisation.

While I don’t have to vote I do need to take a view, as does Labour more generally.  With a degree in theology I’m clearly not a scientist and approach this issue, and others like it, with two principles in mind.  First, to be led by the best available science and second, to be mindful of the precautionary principle wherever human health is concerned i.e. if the doubt is strong don’t do it.   

Often these two principles can pull you in opposite directions, as they have done with glyphosate.  You could argue there’s doubt so we must ban glyphosate.  But the problem with this approach is that a lot of other things are under a shadow of doubt – according to IRAC red meat is also probably carcinogenic, along with very hot drinks and working in a hair salon (all those sprays).

An additional complicating factor, as it is with most matters these days, is Brexit.  If the EU were to ban glyphosate and the UK took a different view, once outside of the EU we would probably find that if we continued to use it this would prevent us from exporting our farming products to the EU, our main market, as they would ban anything produced using glyphosate.

So pity the poor decision makers – not MEPs in this case, but some junior government minister – who will have to go to Brussels to attend the Standing Committee for Plants, Animals, Food and Feed.  I hope they get a seat.

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