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Europe’s environmental contradiction: the saga of the glyphosate licences

Last November a fundamental decision revealed the hypocrisy of the European Union concerning environmental issues and the incapacity of the European Commission to extract itself from the interests of commercial groups. The licence for the use of glyphosate, a hazardous herbicide, has been renewed for five years, with the agreement of European governments, though they know about the disastrous consequences of the use of the chemical product.

To understand why glyphosate is so dangerous and the stakes behind this political decision, we have to retrace the origin of the molecule. Invented by Henri Martin, a Swiss chemist, the molecule of glyphosate was initially used as a metal chelator. The chemical structure of glyphosate enables the extraction of the metals from their environment. Therefore, they stay attached to the molecule of glyphosate, making them soluble in the water since glyphosate is commercialized through its liquid form. It is why glyphosate is a very powerful detergent that was firstly used to descale boilers.

Monsanto’s weedkiller Roundup (Photo: Mike Mozart, Flickr)

The agricultural use of the pesticide began in the 70’s, when it has been patented in 1974 by the firm Monsanto. Glyphosate is then commercialized through the brand “Roundup”. In 2016, 800 000 tonnes of roundup and associated generics have been sprayed all around the world. In a lot of countries, the appearance of certain diseases in a precise territory coincides with the beginning of Roundup pulverisation. In developing countries that rely on an intensive agricultural model, roundup has wreaked havoc among local population. It binds to well water, naturally rich in calcium and magnesium, bringing heavy metals that come from the fields such as chrome, nickel and cobalt. Thanks to glyphosate, this complex becomes stable. The water is then drunk by the local population and brings on fatal diseases. The firm Monsanto is perfectly aware of the chelation power the glyphosate possesses (There is a mention on the roundup packages that are sold in United-States).

In Sri Lanka around 24 800 people died because of the water that have been contaminated by heavy metals, and there are approximately 69 000 persons who are hospitalized because of important kidney dysfunctions, due to the fact that heavy metal particles cannot be filtered by the organ and thus damage body tissue. In spite of the pressure that has been exerted by Monsanto, the government of Sri Lanka managed to ban the poisonous product in 2012, a decision that has not been reverse.

In Europe, roundup has significantly contributed to the drastic diminution of the insect population, and its role as an endocrine disruptor is well known among the scientific community. It provokes an excess of the production of certain enzymes, which provokes fetal malformations. Besides, the product is highly carcinogenic.

Studies that have been conducted by Monsanto itself during the 80’s describe the different cancers on male and females mouse the glyphosate provokes. Those studies have been kept secret until recently thanks to trade secrets law. Its impact on plants and soils is devastating. The chelator properties of the glyphosate isolate the nutrients present in the ground, making the plants deficient in minerals.

One of the greatest ironies is that they become unable to defend themselves against parasites because of this lack of nutrience. Cows that eat these plants do not live longer than 3 to 5 years and yet, Europe imports 38 billion tons of transgenic soya each year from the American continent, which contain a high concentration of glyphosate, in order to feed industrial breeding.

Thus, one can wonder why such a product, responsible for what we could consider call an ecocide, has seen its licence prolonged, while the European governments know about its consequences? Apparently, there is a strong link between the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and some lobbies as the glyphosate taskforce led by Monsanto, which has supported the renewal of the glyphosate licence. Such taskforce, that included several industrial companies under the auspices of Monsanto, has been asked by the EFSA to produce a synthesis of all the studies available about glyphosate, concluding that the molecule is not hazardous and can be maintained on the market.

The concealment of data that has been practiced is a scathing sign of the non-neutrality of the European authorities and their collusion with lobbies. Moreover, pressure also comes from national interests. Bayer, a German multinational company, leader on the market of pharmaceutics and chemicals, mounted a 66 billion takeover of Monsanto, so we understand that numerous economical and political stakeholders in Germany and in the European Union do not want to see the business of glyphosate disappear.

Because the governments refuse to affront the consequences of their political acts, stakeholders of the civil society organized a fictive trial, which was organized in October 2016 in La Haye against Monsanto to gather proof and testimonies concerning the effects of Roundup. Though the judges didn’t have the power to sanction Monsanto, they provided an advisory opinion of authority in order to improve the international humanitarian law, particularly concerning the crime of ecocide. The other objective of the trial was also to foster international awareness.

There is a conception of the agricultural practices that must be changed if we don’t want to see substitutes that are even worse than glyphosate arrive in the European market. It is true that abandoning the pesticides demands more employees and more work, and the creation of new economic spheres, which is, by the way, not that bad for some countries of the European Union struck by a high unemployment rate. But more than a conception of agricultural practices, it’s an entire paradigm that must be revised. There’s a contradiction between the free circulation of goods and the willingness to defend men and the environment. Governments are frightened to be less competitive and then export less if the abandon their practices. Therefore, there’s a lack of a long term vision and a major contradiction between the incapacity of the European Union to change its agricultural practices and it’s willingness to be the world leader in terms of pro-environment policies. The perfect example of this paradox can be found in the government in France, where an ecologist run the ministry of the environment, but the minister of agriculture is held by a pro-industrial politician, who wins most of the trade-offs concerning agricultural practices.

In this farce, people’s wellbeing is absolutely not taken into account, in a system that is presented as a model of democracy. How can the citizens be empowered in a system in which major decisions are taken by an institution (the European commission) that is totally disconnect to citizens, and that is largely influenced by the industrial lobbies? The dilemma remains, but what it is sure is that there is a clash that is more and more visible between the interest of the common people and the industrial companies, and the European Union will face a serious problem of legitimacy if it keeps ignoring the interests of its citizens. Soon or later, the governments of the European union will have to reap what they have sown.

Viktor Krikorian

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