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Most people may not have heard about it, but the general-purpose pesticide glyphosate is used everywhere – from our gardens and grass verges to local parks and school playgrounds, and is found in our food, clothes and cosmetic products. In the past ten years, 6,133 million kilos of the chemical have been sprayed globally and its use is rapidly increasing. Glyphosate is now so widespread that traces can be found in one out of every three loaves of bread consumed in the UK, it appears in all of Germany’s top 14 beers and earlier this year was identified in numerous feminine hygiene products across Europe.
In the past few months the decision on whether to relicense glyphosate in Europe has taken on global significance. It has become a battle of corporate profit versus people’s need, pitching giant corporations against millions of small-scale farmers.
After four months of indecision, three postponed votes and numerous conflicting claims, the chemical – which probably causes cancer in humans, according to the International Agency on Research on Cancer – has just been relicensed for 18 months by the European Commission. Without a renewal, the licence would have expired at the end of June, giving manufacturers six months to phase out its sale.
This would have been a major blow to the giant chemical and seed company Monsanto, who make millions in profit from glyphosate. It is the key ingredient in their flagship product Roundup, the world’s most widely sprayed weed-killer and the product responsible for one third of Monsanto’s total earnings.
While we may have lost the battle for the next 18 months, it is not all bad news. Monsanto had initially been hoping for a 15-year relicense, and a few months ago this seemed to be the most likely outcome. But thanks to massive public pressure this has been rolled back to a temporary licence while a decision on the long-term status of the chemical is further debated. And despite the vote to leave the EU, this temporary relicensing will likely fall entirely within the Brexit negotiation period, so it still affects the UK. After this period, the struggle to stop glyphosate will have to be directed at Westminster rather than Brussels.
Concerns about the safety of glyphosate were corroborated by the World Health Organisation’s 2015 breakthrough study finding glyphosate to be ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. This serious threat to public health was behind the decision of a number of EU member states, including France, Sweden and Italy, to oppose its relicensing. It also drove over two million people to sign Avaaz’s petition urging the EU not to relicense it, and thousands to take action with Global Justice Now’s ‘brandalism’ project to relabel Roundup products on shop shelves.
This resistance to one of Monsanto’s key chemicals goes beyond Europe, with hundreds of bans, restrictions and campaigns across the world. Countries such as Sri Lanka, El Salvador and Colombia have either banned it or restricted its use and local communities in New York and California are outlawing it from their public spaces.
Instead of following suit and taking steps to protect European citizens, the EU called for its own European Food Standard Agency (EFSA) to carry out an alternative study. This rejected the WHO findings and claimed glyphosate is in fact safe for humans.
Because of EFSA’s insistence that the data used in its study remains strictly secret it is unavailable for any external scrutiny. The secretive study has also kept anonymous the names of the researchers. This makes it impossible to know whether any conflicted interests were at stake, which is particularly worrying given that EFSA’s research into product safety are well known to be reliant on industry sponsored studies.
This is all in stark contrast to the WHO study, which has made public all its data and named the scientists involved. It was this scandalous lack of transparency that triggered some 96 prominent scientists to write a fierce letter calling for the EFSA findings to be disregarded.
Monsanto is hugely influential in global food and agricultural policy. It is among a handful of large companies in the agriculture industry that are pitched as the solution to feeding the world’s growing population. Monsanto fiercely defends this image with slick PR campaigns and a £90 million annual advertising budget.
The company is regularly given a platform at the UN’s Food and Agriculture body (FAO) and is involved in numerous international agricultural projects and agreements, increasingly including those related to Africa. It is a part of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition and GROW Africa. Under the guise of being development projects, these schemes have helped Monsanto expand its African markets and have enforced drastic changes to laws and policies to ensure more favourable business environments.
As in Europe, Monsanto’s Africa division benefits from new rules passed by regional governmental bodies that help keep its business booming. Such was the case with the little reported but hugely controversial 2015 Arusha Protocols – an agreement that enforces strict new legislation that is essentially about the commercialisation of seeds. It gives new rights to private seed breeders and companies while criminalising traditional farming practices of swapping and saving seeds, which is devastating for small-scale farmers.
To read more about the problems with the industrial food system and the alternatives to corporate control see Global Justice Now’s food campaign.