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06 Jul 2022 < Back

Glyphosate: EU says ‘no change’ to classification - Is that the end of the debate?

Very few people are ambivalent about Glyphosate. Outwith the odd burst of news, there does not seem to be many articles, especially not within the last 10 years, saying Glyphosate is a bit good or a bit bad. Opinions are almost always polarised: best thing since sliced bread or toxic; should be banned would be good examples. For someone with a scientific outlook, this is a bit upsetting. Surely the truth lies somewhere in why is it so difficult to find a common ground/consensus? Well, I’m not the first and I surely won’t be the last to try and find the holy grail of perspective on this subject. But stimulated by news from the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) that they propose no change to the hazard classification of this herbicide active ingredient… I’ll have a go!

Glyphosate – why is it so important?

In the context of invasive weed control, Glyphosate is a hugely valuable weapon in the management of perennial plants like Japanese knotweed and Bamboo. It is a so-called systemic herbicide; a chemical that is absorbed, translocated and then (and only then) interrupts the normal processes of cell growth. This mechanism enables it to covertly accumulate in perennating organs like rhizomes deep within the soil so that the normal development of shoots and roots is prevented. Such plants may be dealt a fatal blow if enough Glyphosate is delivered to all parts of the rhizome network.

Glyphosate – useful and effective?

There is no doubt that Glyphosate is useful and effective in ways other herbicides are not. You could call it essential in the battle against the most notorious non-native invasive weeds we know. But there are a huge number of other issues that need consideration; human safety, impact on wildlife and on soils/water courses are the main areas covered by chemical risk assessments. Here the PCA acknowledges its own limitations; we do not debate these issues but actually we don’t need to. Governments all over the developed world do that for us and boy it’s a big job! Fortunately, given its commercial significance, Glyphosate has had a high degree of focus/attention – it has been described as the most studied chemical known to mankind (11,000 page dossier submitted)!

The elephant in the room...

The elephant in the room is carcinogenicity. For over 40 years Glyphosate has had a fairly benign profile as herbicides go (most Amenity-approved formulations are not classified as hazardous at all under international CPL Regulations). But one lab study conducted in France triggered a flurry of claims that Glyphosate was a potential carcinogen. Despite this being contrary to historical studies of a similar kind, Glyphosate approvals were brought under the spotlight and re-evaluated (firstly in 2017; now again as part of a 5 year review). The news we share today is that even taking account of the most recent studies the scientific view is that Glyphosate’s classification does not need to change. This is not the end of the EU re-evaluation process (UK’s will follow a few years later). The next, possibly even more detailed and complex, step is for the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) to conduct a similar review focussed on the potential impact of Glyphosate in the environment and in food production/agriculture. But early soundings do not suggest any dramatic change of attitude (by EU’s Regulatory bodies) here either.

So what can we do in the meantime?

Of course, to anyone who uses Glyphosate formulations in their day-to-day work, all the above might be viewed as good news. Whilst the public image of Glyphosate has been tarnished somewhat via social media etc., the official view seems to support continued confidence in its suitability for a wide range of uses. Indeed, it seems clear that in most cases, the selective use of Glyphosate-based herbicides to manage/control non-native invasive weeds is not only an economical choice but can be the best environmental option (Integrated Weed Management). But the wider perception of Glyphosate won’t change overnight….. So what can we do in the meantime? Well, the PCA is all about standards (skills, qualifications, workmanship, legal, financial). We expect and encourage our members to carry on using herbicides responsibly, to high professional standards and in accordance with legally-binding label conditions at the minimum dose and frequency possible. All of our members are registered to use professional herbicides under the Official Controls Regulations 2020 and the public can be assured that this, together with long-standing training and qualifications requirements, ensures the safe and effective use of all herbicides used for invasive weed control.

Is that the end of the debate?

No. Far from it. As was stated above, once the EU review is over the UK will start its own detailed assessments and this may involve new data (the dossier currently with the EU was submitted in 2020). In effect, looking at similar processes in America it seems likely that Glyphosate is now under continuous scrutiny. Not a bad thing; after all, we are all stakeholders in this debate – consumers of food, dependent on clean water and inextricably linked to the health and sustainability of a biodiverse environment. But for now at least, when our clients ask us “is Glyphosate safe?” we can say with some confidence, that in the hands of trained and qualified professionals, it is invariably the best choice from a safety, environment and effectiveness perspective. Now, after 50 years of use, having looked thus far at the data regarding hazard classification, Regulators in the EU find no evidence to alter this view...#

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