A pivotal EU vote this week could revoke the licence for the most widely used herbicide in human history, with fateful consequences for global agriculture and its regulation.
Glyphosate is a weedkiller so pervasive that its residues were recently found in 45% of Europe’s topsoil – and in the urine of three quarters of Germans tested, at five times the legal limit for drinking water.
Since 1974, almost enough of the enzyme-blocking herbicide has been sprayed to cover every cultivable acre of the planet. Its residues have been found in biscuits, crackers, crisps, breakfast cereals and in 60% of breads sold in the UK.
But industry officials warn of farmers in open revolt, environmental degradation and crops rotting in the fields if glyphosate is banned.
Alarm at glyphosate’s ubiquity has grown since a 2015 study by the World Health Organisation’s IARC cancer agency found that it was “probably carcinogenic to humans”. More than a million people have petitioned Brussels for a moratorium.
On Tuesday, MEPs will vote on a ban of the chemical by 2020 in a signal to the EU’s deadlocked expert committee, which is due to vote on a new lease the next day.
Anca Paduraru, an EC spokeswoman, said that a decision was needed before 15 December or “for sure the European commission will be taken to court by Monsanto and other industry and agricultural trade representatives for failing to act. We have received letters from Monsanto and others saying this.”
France is resisting a new 10-year licence. Spain is in favour. Germany is in coalition talks and likely to abstain. The UK would normally push for a new lease of the licence but is less engaged due to Brexit. There may not be a qualified majority for any outcome.
A mooted French phase-out of glyphosate was “not realistic”, Paduraru said, although a shorter authorisation might be possible.
Glyphosate is now so widely used in Europe that any ban would have radical consequences. Most herbicides sold in the UK are glyphosate-based and it is integral to the GM industry. The broad spectrum weedkiller makes up a quarter of global herbicide sales. It is mostly used on maize, cotton, soya bean, oilseed and sugar beet crops genetically engineered to resist it.
Industry voices say that the no-tillage system encouraged by glyphosate reduces soil emissions and protects against more environmentally damaging alternative herbicides. Its desiccant qualities are highly convenient for farmers.
A spokesman for the European Crop Protection Agency said: “The longer a crop remains in the ground to dry, the more chance there is that it is exposed to rain and wind and rots.”
Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s VP for corporate strategy, forecast “uproar in the agricultural community” and “a whole host of detrimental effects to crops in the fields” if glyphosate were phased out.
“You would see increased costs for farming and decreased productivity, increased greenhouse gas emissions, loss of topsoil, loss of moisture,” he said. “There would be some significant reaction by farmers through Europe. They would be very upset that a very effective and safe tool had been taken out of their hands.”
In a Brussels hotel room, Teri McCall, in her new life as a campaigner, has come to lobby against renewal of the licence as she has no doubt that glyphosate causes cancer. After her late-husband, Jack, contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) in 2015 she became one of 500 US plaintiffs suing Monsanto, claiming that exposure to its Roundup brand was responsible – a claim Monsanto denies.
“Jack was a farmer since 1975,” says McCall. “For 40 years he used Roundup to keep the weeds down around his newly planted trees. He must have sprayed thousands of gallons of it. He believed it was safe.”
Jack did not smoke or drink, exercised regularly and had no family history of cancer. After lumps appeared on his neck in July 2015, he was diagnosed with NHL aged 69.
“It was an astonishingly swift illness,” McCall says. “I had no idea I was going to lose him. He just kept getting sicker and sicker.” On Christmas day in 2015, the family turned off his life support machine.
Jack’s six-year-old dog Duke also died from the same type of cancer, McCall says. “He was a beautiful black labrador, the most gorgeous dog. He followed Jack around when he was spraying and was also exposed to a lot of Roundup.”
However, Baskut Tuncak, the OHCHR’s special rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes, says there are “serious questions” about glyphosate’s carcinogenicity, while its regulation evinces “a conflict of interest between politics and the pesticide industry”.
“The chemical industry’s oligopoly has enormous power,” he said. “The pesticide industry has prevented reforms and has blocked the introduction of restrictions on the use of such products in various countries and globally.”
Numerous non-industry studies linking glyphosate exposure to tumour development have been ignored by the EPA and other regulators in favour of secret industry reports, conservationists say.
Glyphosate is also tested by regulators in isolation, even though some research indicates that the surfactants it is mixed with in Roundup may increase its toxicity by a factor of up to 100.
The question for many farmers is what could take its place. Glyphosate has reduced the need for more toxic alternative herbicides and also for deep tillage – or ploughing – which can be highly damaging to soil fertility.
But its use has also been associated with an increase in farm size and monoculture systems. Environmentalists say that glyphosate is congruous with continuous arable cropping and an acceleration of the “pesticide treadmill”.
Any benefits from a glyphosate ban would come too late for farmers such as Johnny Bob Barton, another non-smoker diagnosed with NHL after 40 years of manually spraying diluted Roundup, on his family farm.
“We were farming a thousand acres of crops and we’d spray using a hose. By the end of the day, you would be saturated down to your pants, boots and socks,” he said. “I never had a choice to say no to this product. There was no warning. Now as a father I have to live with the fact that I exposed my sons to the same thing.”
Monsanto, though, fiercely defends the safety of its product and points to the findings of several regulatory agencies, which dispute the IARC findings.
“Glyphosate is the safest herbicide that has ever been invented,” Partridge said. “While my heart goes out to those suffering from cancer, there is no medical or scientific evidence whatsoever that links the exposure of glyphosate to cancer.”
A report by Pesticide Action Network last week linked the broad spectrum herbicide to dramatic declines in earthworm populations and damaging soil microbial communities. The paper said its use also destroyed food sources for pollinators, and made crops more vulnerable to pathogens and disease.
Dispensing with it would require “a significant redesign of our farming systems”, according to the sustainable food trust, which supports such a move.
Shallow tilling at soil depths limited to 25cm has been shown to reduce weed density and improve long-term soil quality and biodiversity in some studies. Combined with greater crop diversity and rotation, crop rollers, and the use of green manure to raise nitrogen levels, conservationists say that crop yields, soil fertility and carbon storage could all be kept at levels close to today’s.
Leo de Montaignac, the firm’s CEO, says the estimated £940m cost to British farmers of a glyphosate ban should be weighed against the substantially higher cost of litigation and environmental and public health damage which may result from herbicide use.
“Companies like ours are already optimising our technology for use in the agricultural sector and we aim to have a production machine for it available before the end of next year,” De Montaignac says.
“There is a huge amount of scaremongering which says that viable alternatives are not available and it is simply not true.”
• This article was amended on 24 October 2017. An earlier version said Baskut Tuncak was a special rapporteur at the UNHCR. This has been corrected to the OHCHR.