The European Chemicals Agency’s role in the EU-wide classification of glyphosate

What is happening with glyphosate in the EU?

Video published on 7 February 2017 by EUchemicals.

Glyphosate is one of the most widely used substances in pesticides. The authorisation for using it in the EU has expired and authorities are deciding whether to renew it for a further 15 years.

The European Commission has in the meantime extended the authorisation temporarily until the end of 2017 while waiting for the classification of the substance by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).

Corporate Europe Action

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EurActiv Statement

Read the press release here.

HEAL Campaign

Join the initiative here.

Science Mag Position

Read the press release here.

EDCs, Pesticides and EU Lobbying…
  1. The Manufacture of a Lie.
  2. A Denial of the State of the Science.
  3. The Interference of the United States.
  4. The Discreet but Major Gift to the Pesticides Lobby.

The revolving doors between EU Commission and big business

Ask the EU Commission to put public interest before private pockets

Following the high-level appointment of former European Commission President José Manuel Barroso to Goldman Sachs, an alliance of pro-transparency NGOs has launched a citizens’ petition demanding stricter rules for ex-EU commissioners’ revolving door moves.

Demand EU transparency and ethics rules now

Say No to the power of lobbies, ask for stronger ethics regulation

Join ALTER-EU to demand MEPs vote for tough new rules to ban conflicts of interest and promote full lobby transparency.

MEPs in the European Parliament, led by Sven Giegold, have drafted a report on “Transparency, integrity and accountability in the EU institutions”, and it includes many proposals to promote cleaner decision-making in Brussels. On 12 September, members of Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) will vote on this report – but not all MEPs agree that there needs to be a change to business as usual.

We have one week left to convince MEPs that excessive corporate lobbying and unethical politics – like the recent move by former Commission President Barroso to the investment bank Goldman Sachs – are a threat to our democracy.

Demand EU transparency and ethics rules now, Corporate Europe Observatory, September 6th 2016.

ALTER-EU (the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation), Democracy International and Transparency International are asking EU citizens to contact MEPs to demand they vote for:

  1. Banning MEPs from having side jobs with groups or companies involved in lobbying of the EU institutions.
  2. A stronger Parliament ethics committee with the powers to initiate its own investigations into alleged conflicts of interests and share with the public its recommendations for sanctions.
  3. A legislative footprint – so we can see who is lobbying on specific policies and laws.

Tell your MEP to take action to control the influence of big business over EU politics.

The Influence of Big Business and Lobby Groups in the EU Policy Making

Lobby Land, by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO)

Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) is a research and campaign group working to expose and challenge the privileged access and influence enjoyed by corporations and their lobby groups in EU policy making.

How the food lobby undermines existing laws in the EU

Much-needed measures are vital for tackling Europe’s looming obesity crisis

The food and drink lobby is winning the fight over EU sugar regulation. As Corporate Europe Observatory’s new reportA spoonful of sugar‘ illustrates, existing laws are being undermined and much-needed measures fought off that are vital for tackling Europe’s looming health crisis.

An increasing number of people in Europe are struggling with obesity, heart disease and diabetes linked to excessive sugar consumption. This public health crisis has not stopped trade associations that represent the biggest players in the food and drink industry from resisting regulation at all cost: snacks, drinks, and processed foods that are high in sugar have the highest profit margins.

Food lobby rigs EU sugar laws while obesity and diabetes spiral out of control, corporateeurope, July 28th 2016.

In total, the key trade associations, companies and lobby groups behind sugary food and drinks spend an estimated €21.3 million annually to lobby the European nion.

A spoonful of sugar‘ highlights how, despite rhetoric about addressing the health crisis, industry lobbyists are derailing effective sugar regulation in the European Union.

Their strategies include:
  • Pushing free trade agreements and deregulation drives that undermine existing laws;
  • Exercising undue influence over EU regulatory bodies;
  • Capturing scientific expertise;
  • Championing weak voluntary schemes;
  • Outmaneuvering consumer groups by spending billions on aggressive lobbying.

Health policies like upper limits for sugars in processed foods, sugar taxes, and labels that clearly show added sugars are long overdue. We need lobby transparency and a clear division between the regulators and the regulated. Rules and guidelines that help people make informed and healthier nutrition choices must no longer fall prey to the disproportionate influence of the food and drink industry.

Katharine Ainger, freelance journalist and co-author of Corporate Europe Observatory’s new report, said:

“So many independent scientific studies show a clear link between excessive sugar consumption and serious health risks. But the fact that there is still no consensus on the dangers of sugar among EU regulators proves just how powerful the food and drink lobby is.
Sound scientific advice is being sidelined by the billions of euros backing the sugar lobby. In its dishonesty and its disregard for people’s health, the food and drink industry rivals the tactics we’ve seen from the tobacco lobby for decades.”

Glyphosate: one pesticide, many problems

EU extended the herbicide’s market authorisation

The latest episode in the glyphosate saga just took place, with the EU’s Health and Food Safety Commissioner, V. Andriukaitis, announcing that the European Commission would extend the current market authorisation of glyphosate by 18 months.

Time has ran out: the current market authorisation for glyphosate expires on 30 June 2016. Last Friday, the “Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed”, made up of representatives of EU States, met again in Brussels to vote a proposal by the European Commission to extend the current market authorisation of glyphosate (declared main ingredient of the herbicide Roundup) by 12-18 months. Again, the failed to agree or disagree, as they did during their previous meetings, so the European Commission was allowed to adopt its own proposal to extend glyphosate’s current market authorisation.

The European Commission just extended the pesticide’s market authorisation, Corporate Europe Observatory, June 28th 2016.

Image of a “green desert” in Argentina: kilometres of glyphosate-tolerant soy monocroppin, by Pedro Francisco Suarez.

Judging by comments from Commission vice-President F. Timmermans on June 15 to MEPs (“the Commission does not have the luxury to abstain” from 3h00’00” onwards , replying to a question by MEP Huitema on the current glyphosate gridlock at 2h37’58”), industry’s threats of lawsuits in case of non-renewal and the Commission’s own position, it was rather obvious it would do it.

Health Commissioner Andriukaitis referred to the Commission’s “legal obligations” to explain their decision to extend the licence in order to wait for the final assessment of the substance by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) of Helsinki. In charge of the file, he had been in a very uncomfortable position for months, squeezed between Member States’ unexpected resolution to not approve such a controversial herbicide and Juncker’s fury that the Commission would get the blame for taking the decision to keep such an unpopular product on the market at a time when the Brexit referendum puts the entire EU administration at very high political risk. Andriukaitis made clear that the Commission desperately wanted EU member states’ support for its proposal, but did not succeed in swaying them: there was no notable change in EU states’ respective positions since the last vote on June 6, lost under strong media attention by the Commission. France had already declared it would vote against the Commission proposal next Friday, Germany that it would abstain (although the battle was said to have resumed there in the days before the vote between the socialists and the conservatives). It looks like the European Commission preferred public fury to industry lawsuits.

Missed opportunities and bigger pictures

In our opinion, one of the most important – but less discussed – stakes in this process has been the possibility to put an end to the use of one the most used and efficient plant-killer on Earth while we’re experiencing the fastest biodiversity collapse ever measured. The glyphosate saga could have been an opportunity to at last discuss and regulate the use of wide-spectrum herbicides in agriculture, but this is yet to happen.

Similarly, little discussed too are the accompanying protection measures that EU farmers would need against their non-EU competitors in the case of a ban. Without these, farmers- rather than adopting healthier but more expensive weed management practices – were at a risk of exposing themselves to other herbicides with comparable or yet worse effects than those containing glyphosate, while having to pay a premium.

This was not lost however on the pesticide industry, which had been talking a lot lately about the need to help farmers keep buying glyphosate. In Brussels and in national capitals (and particularly in London), the largest farmers unions had upscaled their lobbying to keep glyphosate on the market since May, mainly using the argument of glyphosate being “too big too ban”, and trying to float their interests in the context of the UK’s referendum on EU membership taking place today. The glyphosate saga could have been an opportunity to discuss much-needed evolutions in European agriculture, currently facing a tragic race to the bottom at the expense of quality, labour conditions and sustainability, but it didn’t happen yet.

Up to now, the most discussed issue has remained whether glyphosate “probably causes” cancer to humans, as the International Agency for Research Against Cancer (IARC) found in 2015. Beyond the worrisome result, this qualification, under EU pesticides rules, would cause its ban regardless of exposure levels…. but the official EU process found the opposite (IARC’s evidence was linked to high exposure levels, so apparently more relevant for sprayers than for other citizens). Because this is the only argument that, under current rules, could trigger a legal ban, it has tended to monopolise the debate.

The pesticide industry and the EU administration argued that the normal risk assessment rules have been followed, that their assessment was better than IARC’s (the agency has been abundantly slandered since it published its conclusion), that previous and other recent official assessments point in the same direction, and therefore that there is no ground to oppose the re-licensing. They call the ongoing gridlock “political interference”, arguing for the need to follow existing “science-based” rules.

Science vs. politics, really?

There is a problem with this line of argumentation though: comparing the two processes puts the respect for the scientific method squarely in IARC’s camp. While it only used published scientific literature and worked with a panel of international cancer specialists whose independence had been confirmed, the EU’s official process, combining EU and national risk assessment agencies, relied heavily on unpublished industry-funded studies, themselves assessed by public officials 80% of whom refused to be identified.

So, the EU administrations and the pesticide industry defended a conclusion whose underlying evidence is only accessible to themselves, because the scientific studies at stake belong to companies such as Monsanto that threaten to sue the EU administration if it shares them with anyone else, “science-based” rules or not. Nevertheless, the European Commission always had the legal possibility to publish this evidence, invoking an overriding public interest which, considering the level of public attention and debate, would have been wholly justified, but seems not interested. The opposite is sadly true: the Commission is currently appealing, with the help of the pesticides industry, a judgment from the European Court of Justice that forced it to publish parts of the evidence used to deliver glyphosate’s previous market authorisation! Rumour has it that the European Commission’s Legal Service simply doesn’t like losing…

Data secrecy at the root of the political scandal

In any case, one could argue that data secrecy is the very reason this seemingly technical process became political and caused the 6-months gridlock. The unusual conflict between two major public health administrations, IARC and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), grew out of the impossibility for EFSA to follow the normal scientific method of sharing its evidence with IARC for cross-examination and discussion. Today, the two agencies have cut communication, an absurd situation.

Several MEPs and NGOs (including CEO) have officially called on EFSA to publish the studies, so far to no avail (CEO introduced its request more than seven months ago, we’re still waiting, see our companion piece on industry’s arguments to fight disclosure). The dire situation is acknowledged grudgingly by at least some in the European Commission, starting with Andriukaitis himself. Last March 4, in a press conference right after a meeting of Member States (Environment Council) where some EU States had made their opinion clear already, Andriukaitis made no mystery that this data secrecy was a major problem:

There is the possibility to disclose these studies because of overriding public interest, we’re ready to assess the legal environment…” “It is crystal clear there is a need to change today’s situation; we’re considering different options, but at the moment the idea is to change the rules, keeping in mind overriding public interest. Such ideas are on my table“.

Andriukaitis’ lonely good intentions

The Commissioner publicly asked industry for the publication of the studies on April 4. But there are doubts as to whether his services shared his resolution: industry reacted on the same day in a way that shows that the two documents were coordinated so as to not create a precedent which could endanger the Commission and industry’s court case against glyphosate data disclosure (see a critical open letter on the issue CEO co-signed).

CEO obtained a document showing that on 17 March 2016, DG SANTE, EFSA and the Glyphosate Task Force held a telephone conference together, “facilitated by ECPA” (the pesticide industry lobby group). A report of this meeting shows how the three parties discuss the idea to install a ‘reading room’ (just like for TTIP), to give a selected audience access to the studies. One can see why: no scrutiny to fear for industry, no huge redaction work to “sanitise” the studies by the EU administration. This is of course not a solution: it takes more than reading to assess scientific results.

Andriukaitis himself told just that to journalists from Arte VoxPop: “in my opinion, the reading room is not enough, it would be better to show the details of the scientific studies on internet”.

In any case, such a reading room has not even been put in place, so the secrecy continues. And since the “science” argument fails to convince for the above-mentioned reasons, what is left to the European Commission is political tactics.

Commission asks industry to lobby Member States

On 4th April 2016, another meeting happened between Commissioner Andriukaitis himself, DG SANTE officials, and lobbyists from ECPA, CEFIC (European chemical industry) and COPA-COGECA (EU-level union of big farmers, all too often siding with the pesticide industry) . According to the minutes released by the European Commission, the Commissioner “reminded the visitors [the industry lobbyists, red.] about their responsibility to talk to Member States and MEPs with a view to get their support for the renewal”. Another example of the old de facto alliance between the Commission and business groups against national administrations, but if convincing Member States of the safety of a product boils down to industry lobbying, then that does not exactly lead to more trust in the scientific integrity of this re-approval process.

Industry, on its side, said it was very worried: ECPA expressed concerns in this meeting that “if robust statements of BfR and EFSA are not followed that will be victory for opponents and set precedent for all future approvals”.

As we wrote at the beginning, glyphosate is indeed a substance entangled in much broader, and possibly more important, political debates: the integrity and trustworthiness of the EU’s chemicals assessment regulations, the relevance of still using wide-spectrum herbicides today, the sustainability of agriculture… But unfortunately all these points are brought up separately, as and when they do.

One observation to conclude on: Germany’s Bfr and EFSA recommended not only glyphosate’s re-approval, but also an increase in the acceptable daily intake (ADI) by 66% (from 0.3 to 0.5 mg per kg body weight per day). As a consequence, EFSA has already started to increase legally admissible exposure levels to glyphosate.

Corporate Europe Observatory Files

  • FW: BTO – Discussion re access to glyphosate information, corporateeurope, 17.03.2016.
  • BTO Meeting Commissioner Andriukaitis with ECPA, CEFIC, COPA-COGECA and Agri-Food Chain, corporateeurope, 4 April 2016.

More than 95% of experts in EU glyphosate review refuse public scrutiny of their interests

EU review of weedkiller glyphosate adds secrecy to controversy

This article is a brief follow-up to Corporate Europe Observatory previous investigations on the EU glyphosate review: see “The Glyphosate Saga” and “EFSA and Member States vs. IARC on Glyphosate: Has Science Won?. Image Hide away.

EU review of weedkiller glyphosate adds secrecy to controversy, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), challenging the influence of big business and business lobby groups in EU policy making, January 14th 2016.

More than 80 per cent of the national experts involved in the EU’s official assessment of glyphosate refused to have their names disclosed to the public. Their review concluded, in contrast to the WHO’s International Agency for Research Against Cancer, that the most used herbicide in the world was “unlikely” to cause cancer to humans.

“I can assure you that this product is not dangerous, but I’d rather have my name not being published.” @sfoucart

Almost 95 per cent did not accept to have their interests published. National food safety organisations involved are listed, with the number of experts representing them. A consequence is that, for the moment, the only public authors of this EU’s review are governmental agencies, not individual scientists. The European Commission and Member States need to decide whether or not to re-authorise glyphosate on the EU market before June 2016.

A conflict has erupted between, on the one hand, the International Agency for Research against Cancer (IARC) and, on the other hand, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Germany’s Federal Risk Assessment Institute (BfR) over their opposite assessments of the risks of glyphosate. Soon after EFSA and BfR published their conclusion in November 2015, several members of the IARC working group and dozens of scientists sending a very critical open letter to the European Commission to complain about the way the two agencies had treated their work. The two agencies replied early January 2016, insisting that IARC’s work was only a “first screening” and that their work was “a more comprehensive hazard assessment”. And so did the European Commissioner for Public Health, V. Andriukaitis, acknowledging that “diverging scientific opinions on such a widely used product is indeed disconcerting” and urging the two camps to work together to “resolve or at least clarify the contentious scientific issues”. A meeting seems scheduled between EFSA and IARC in February 2016 to discuss further.

Finding out who is right and who isn’t in this conflict is difficult for non-toxicologists but the differences in the two processes, however, are interesting. Our analysis showed that IARC only used publicly available data, with meetings accessible to observers (including industry) and a panel filled with top specialists while excluding all conflicts of interest. On the other hand, BfR and EFSA also relied on industry-sponsored studies to which they attributed much importance in explaining their difference with IARC, but that only them and industry could see1… The work was carried out by officials from their own respective pesticides units, as well as from several national agencies, and most of the work was done in teleconferences without external witnesses.

Were these officials independent from the pesticides industry and political pressures from their governments? EFSA’s independence policy is far from perfect but at least bans obvious conflicts of interest with industry for its staff during their employment, and the agency is meant to be independent from both Member States and the European Commission – whether it actually is independent from the Commission would be a long story. Evaluating the independence of the national experts involved in the work is even more difficult.

An access to documents request at EFSA by CEO delivered the following results: among the 73 national experts who participated in EFSA’s peer review on glyphosate, only 14 agreed for their names to be disclosed as their country’s representative in the process. At least, EFSA detailed the name of the national organisations these experts belonged to. See the table provided by EFSA, and our own with links to DOIs. Among the 14 who accepted the publication of their name, only five filled a declaration of interest (DOI) and only four accepted that their DOI is published. That is, 5.5% of the experts involved in the review.

The most striking outcome of this access to documents request was perhaps that not a single expert from the rapporteur state, Germany, was named. This is all the more problematic given that BfR has a policy allowing industry employees on its panels (its current pesticides panel for instance includes employees of chemical giants Bayer and BASF). BfR refused to comment on the identity of the five officials contributing to EFSA’s peer review (an anonymous source had sent five names to CEO, all BfR officials), stating that “BfR assessments in general are made by BfR staff” and that “external experts from the BfR Committes merely advise BfR […] and were not involved at any stage in the re-assessment of the active substance glyphosate”.

Why such a secrecy? No reason was provided. As far as other countries were concerned, EFSA said that since these individuals were not EFSA staff, the agency could not impose to them to fill a DOI. EFSA would not disclose the name of its own staff involved, claiming institutional authorship and the need to protect its employees against undue influence. That last argument can have some merit during the process (less so afterwards), but secrecy precisely allows undue influence to remain unnoticed…

The European Commission and the Member State (whose representatives at the Standing Committee are likely to resemble some of our unknown experts) need to decide whether or not to re-authorise glyphosate on the EU market before June 2016.