Perhaps as a sign of how unstable Germany’s political landscape has become, a weed killer has become an unlikely bargaining chip in the country’s political power-brokering. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) has mandated the discontinuation of glyphosate a prerequisite for another grand coalition to go ahead with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Despite facing stiff opposition to outlawing the widely used herbicide from its unruly Bavarian sister party, Merkel ultimately succeeded in getting the CSU to approve the grand coalition plan.
When it comes to maintaining the chancellorship, the CDU clearly decided that the widely used molecule is not a hill it is willing to die on. Merkel’s feat, although impressive, is ultimately a triumph for the SPD. Even though the draft coalition treaty remains (no doubt deliberately) vague on a deadline, the EU’s most powerful country is now a proponent of organic agriculture, restricting the use of chemicals and broadly against glyphosate. The reasons for this latest decision may be grounded in domestic politics. The reverberations, however, will be felt across the EU.
In relenting to the SPD’s demands, Merkel solved one of the major legislative hurdles in German politics, one that has previously hampered efforts to form a working coalition. In November 2017, the EU breathed a sigh of relief when it finally voted to renew glyphosate’s licence for five years after much torturous wrangling. As it turned out, it was German agriculture minister Christian Schmidt of the CSU who cast the decisive vote that swung the decision in the herbicide’s favour. While many hoped that the glyphosate saga was finally put to rest in Europe, the SPD was enraged by Schmidt’s actions.
An endorsement from the bloc did nothing to quell the discontent from the SPD or the many other activists seeking to ban glyphosate, a decision that would be based on the findings of a highly contentious report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC). The report was found by news agency Reuters to be heavily edited in order to reach the conclusion that the substance probably causes cancer – a conclusion which is at odds with the many of the original findings used in IARC’s study.
The case against glyphosate becomes flimsier considering that IARC’s conclusions flout the assessments of many other esteemed researchers around the world. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) both agreed that the herbicide poses no cancer risk following their own extensive evaluations. On the other side of the Atlantic, the same conclusion was reached by the Agricultural Health Study (AHS), a large-scale survey tracking the health of tens of thousands of agricultural workers and their families in Iowa and North Carolina.
The US Congress found the IARC’s conclusions so precarious that it prompted an inquiry into whether the US should even continue funding IARC given its seemingly tentative relationship with scientific rigour. That investigation gained more currency this week after a judge in California overturned the state’s move to slap cancer warnings on the product. U.S. District Judge William Shubb said that glyphosate does “is not in fact known to cause cancer”, and that “the required warning is factually inaccurate and controversial.”
Nevertheless, the fact that the CSU remains so steadfastly opposed to glyphosate – despite the weight of evidence in glyphosate’s favour – is not particularly surprising. Its stance is informed by populist considerations. The party has effectively bent to a public that has become increasingly hostile to pesticides and GMOs, thanks to the revival of green activists gathering strength across the country. Germany’s changing tack on agricultural policy and glyphosate will strengthen activists the EU over, no matter how shaky the basis for their misgivings about the chemical.
Seeing how France declared that it will seek to phase out the herbicide within the next three years, Berlin and Paris united against glyphosate is certain to lend extra momentum to anti-herbicide tendencies. And the impact is already being felt. The molecule is about to come under the spotlight in the EU yet again. Earlier in February, the European Parliament approved the composition of a special enquiry commission to look into the authorization procedures for pesticides, and in particular the rationale behind glyphosate’s licence being renewed last year.
For Brussels, revisiting a seemingly never-ending debate will without a doubt be a great source of frustration and occupy considerable resources. Despite the many other issues the EU has in its in-tray, this one just refuses to go away. It is up to the SPD to vote on the coalition draft and ultimately decide whether the SPD-CDU government can go ahead. But it has become abundantly clear that if Merkel remains in position for another four years, the battle for glyphosate in the EU is far from over.