Glyphosate use under the microscope as EU reviews weedkiller's approval

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“>controversial herbicide glyphosate is back in the spotlight as the European Union reviews its approval of the weedkiller.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is calling for information on the use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, in New Zealand.

Used by home gardeners, farmers, and councils in New Zealand since the 1970s, glyphosate is found in 89 mixtures approved for use here.

However, its possible environmental and health effects have been subject to public debate and the chemical is banned in several countries.

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In 2015, the active ingredient found in Roundup – glyphosate – was classified as being "probably carcinogenic to humans" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. (File photo)

tom dillane/Stuff

In 2015, the active ingredient found in Roundup – glyphosate – was classified as being “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. (File photo)

While approved for use in the EU, European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) are currently reviewing the classification and approval of glyphosate.

Their conclusions are expected to be released in mid-2022.

EPA general manager of hazardous substances and new organisms, Dr Chris Hill, said by calling for information on the chemical’s use now, the authority would be better prepared to assess the EU findings.

“There has been ongoing public debate about the effects of glyphosate on environmental and human health.

“Our position at this time remains that products containing glyphosate are safe to use when all the rules around their use are followed.”

That position was in line with the current regulatory opinion in Australia, Canada, the European Union and the United States, Hill said.

The EPA monitors and reviews global research on hazardous substances, including glyphosate, and it had no evidence that risks associated with using glyphosate, or its hazardous nature, had changed.

However, the time was right to “take another look” at glyphosate.

Police arrest a protester taking part in anti-glyphosate action outside the Nelson City Council in March.

Martin De Ruyter/Stuff

Police arrest a protester taking part in anti-glyphosate action outside the Nelson City Council in March.

“This is something we have been considering for some time, and is in line with our stance as a proactive regulator – putting the environment and the health of people front and centre,” Hill said.

“The call for information will provide us with information on how glyphosate is currently being used in New Zealand. It is possible this has changed since we approved its use.”

Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) toxicologist Dr Belinda Cridge said although she did not have serious concerns about the toxicity of glyphosate, the call for information was welcome.

“Our understanding of chemicals develops over time, and it is incumbent upon the EPA to continually reassess current literature, knowledge, and social acceptance of the chemicals we use.

“With major reviews occurring in the US and EU to update our understanding of the risks and benefits of glyphosate use, it is important that the EPA has New Zealand-relevant information to allow decisions as to the future use of the chemical here.”

Massey University senior lecturer in weed science, Dr Kerry Harrington, said it was concerning that policy over glyphosate in Europe appeared to be more swayed by public perceptions than facts.

“Most toxicologists across the world now agree that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans.

”If glyphosate was to be removed from use, the possible replacements are either less effective or likely to be more damaging to the environment than glyphosate.”

The use of this herbicide in agriculture had enabled much more use of direct drilling when establishing crops and pastures, which reduced soil erosion, Harrington said.

No other herbicide achieved satisfactory direct drilling – a process which establishes crops without cultivating the soil – without weed problems afterwards.

“Councils will have difficulties keeping weeds under control in our communities without needing to increase costs considerably from using less effective alternatives.

“But the EPA in New Zealand will hopefully use this exercise to reassure themselves and the community that it is correct to continue using glyphosate within New Zealand.”