Business & Tech

From Brussels to Arkansas, a tough week for Monsanto

Activists from E.Z.L.N - Ensemble Zoologique de Liberation de la Nature (Zoological Ensemble for Nature's Liberation) take part in a demonstration against the weed-killer glyphosate and US agrochimical company Monsanto in front of the Justice Palace in Brussels where nine of their activists are facing justice after an action against pesticides, on November 9, 2017. EU countries failed to agree to a proposal to extend the license for the controversial weed-killer glyphosate by five years, prompting the Commission to say it will resubmit the proposal at the end of the month. / AFP PHOTO / EMMANUEL DUNANDEMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
Emmanuel Dunande/AFP/Getty Images
Activists took part in a demonstration against the weed-killer glyphosate and US agrochimical company Monsanto in front of the Justice Palace in Brussels on Thursday. EU countries failed to agree to a proposal to extend the license for the controversial weed-killer glyphosate by five years.

Opposition from France and Italy doomed a European Union vote Thursday to reauthorize the world’s most popular weedkiller, glyphosate, a decision that came hours after Arkansas regulators moved to ban an alternative weedkiller for much of 2018.

The decisions are a double blow to the agrochemical industry and particularly to chemicals giant Monsanto. An appeals committee of European officials will convene later this month, though, to weigh again whether to continue to allow glyphosate just weeks before its registration expires. The chemical is the main ingredient in Roundup, one of Monsanto’s flagships, but its patent has ended and it is now made by much of the industry.

The effort to reauthorize the weedkiller failed to receive a majority even though regulators were seeking only a five-year reauthorization instead of the typical 15, amid controversy and disputes about cancer risk that have made glyphosate’s future in Europe uncertain. Its approval in the region expires in mid-December.

Advertisement

The vote Thursday, which was weighted based on the population of the various EU member states, was nearly 37 percent in favor of renewing the chemical and a little over 32 percent against, with nearly 31 percent abstaining. France and Italy opposed the renewal; Spain was in favor, along with Britain, which is due to leave the union; Germany and Poland abstained.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In Arkansas, regulators voted Wednesday to ban the use of another major weedkiller, dicamba, for more than six months of next year, including the summer, amid widespread reports of crop damage. Dicamba has been around for decades, but new versions have been developed by Monsanto, BASF, and DuPont as an alternative to Roundup. The regulatory recommendation is now being sent to a state legislative panel.

Taken together, the decisions reflect an increasing political resistance to pesticides in Europe and parts of the United States, as well as the specific shortcomings of dicamba, whose tendency to drift has given pause even to the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, which has otherwise largely acceded to the wishes of the chemical industry. Dicamba has damaged more than 3.6 million acres of soybean crops in 25 states, roughly 4 percent of all soybeans planted this year in the United States.

In a statement, an industry trade group known as the Glyphosate Task Force, which includes Monsanto and Syngenta, called the European decision “discriminatory and unacceptable,” adding that “delays of this nature which are evident during the final stages of the process simply expose acute politicization of the regulatory procedure.”

But Nicolas Hulot, French environment minister, tweeted after the vote: “Thanks to our opposition glyphosate is not reauthorized for 10 years, nor 5 years. The effort to get out of pesticides continues!”

Advertisement

Regarding the decision in Arkansas, Scott Partridge, vice president of global strategy for Monsanto, said in a statement Wednesday that the company was disappointed that state regulators “voted to put Arkansas farmers at a disadvantage, but we’ll continue to follow the process to help those growers have greater choice next season.”

The EU’s decision came after years of haggling and delay. Policy makers largely brushed aside the opinions of two of the bloc’s science agencies, which had found that glyphosate was not a carcinogen.

But glyphosate, which accounts for about a quarter of the global market, has been plunged into controversy since the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, declared it a probable carcinogen in 2015. The finding, which has been disputed by a number of other government agencies, has made the weedkiller a magnet for controversy.

Glyphosate is also at the center of a federal case in the United States over claims that it causes cancer, and California has declared it a carcinogen, following in the footsteps of the international cancer agency.

Use of glyphosate has soared in the United States and other parts of the world over the last two decades, after Monsanto introduced crops that were genetically engineered to be resistant to the chemical. That meant key crops like corn, soybeans, and cotton could be sprayed with the herbicide after they emerged from the ground. During that time, the presence of glyphosate in human urine increased 500 percent, according to a recent study by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Advertisement

Europe, by contrast, has largely shunned genetically modified crops, but glyphosate is still the Continent’s biggest seller. In Britain and Germany, it is used on as much as 40 percent of agricultural land, according to an industry trade group.