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UPDATE: The briefing paper will be updated in due course to reflect the following develpoments:

  • 27 November 2017: the EU’s Appeal Committee (Phytopharmaceutials) agreed by qualified majority in favour of a proposal by the European Commission to renew the approval of glyphosate (as an active ingredient) for a period of 5 years. This proposal was supported by the UK Government. Active ingredients are more usually approved for 15 years and this shorter period reflects a compromise on the Commission’s intitial proposal for 10 years after Member States could not reach agreement on the renewal.
  • 12 December 2017: the EU Commision adopted the necessary legal act for the renewal.
    10 August 2018: Monsanto was ordered by the California Superior Court to pay $289m damages to a plaintiff who claimed that using a formulation of RangerPro (which includes glyphosate) regularly in his job had contributed to him developing Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Monsanto has stated that it will appeal the decision. It is for EU Member States to authorise specific glyphosate-based products at domestic level.
  • Defra’s response to the judgement has been that ‘decisions on the use of pesticides should be based on a careful scientific assessment of the risks. Once outside the EU, we will continue to make decisions on pesticides based on the best available science.’

This briefing from the House of Commons Library looks at the recent history of the EU authorisation for the herbicide glyphosate.

Key points are:

Glyphosate is a widely-used, non-selective herbicide (or herbicide ingredient) registered for use on many food and non-food crops, as well as non-crop areas where total vegetation control is desired. It was discovered and brought to market as a herbicide by Monsanto in the 1970s under the trade name “Roundup”

Roundup is the world’s best-selling weedkiller. Farmers and growers apply it to control weeds without harming their crops. It is also used as a crop desiccant.

In its briefing on glyphosate, the National Farmers Union (NFU) describes it as a “vital resource in modern agriculture” and highlights (for example) its role in reducing soil erosion and compaction.

Pesticides are regulated initially at an EU level. EU approval of the herbicide glyphosate was granted in January 2002, based on a review of health and environmental data.

A European Commission proposal to renew the authorisation for glyphosate for the next 15 years was expected in 2012, but was delayed so that the decision could be informed by two key scientific opinions on glyphosate’s safety from two bodies – the UN’s specialist cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The renewal of the EU authorisation for glyphosate was delayed at EU level with conflicting scientific assessments: 

  • The IARC concluded that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic” to humans. It also found that there was “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma” but “convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals”.
  • The EFSA concluded (taking into account the IARC findings) that glyphosate was unlikely to be genotoxic i.e. damaging to DNA or to pose a carcinogenic threat to humans.
  • The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in March 2017 concluded that glyphosate was not carcinogenic, although it had found that it caused serious eye damage and was toxic to aquatic life. This review will contribute to future authorisations

Future approval of glyphosate remains contentious on some Member States, although the UK supports the continued use of it.

A report from Oxford Economics and the Anderson Centre (in partnership with the Crop Protection Association) in June 2017 concluded that an EU ban on pesticides containing glyphosate could:

  • lead to a reduction in farm output of £940 million
  • reduce tax revenues generated by agriculture and its supply chain by £193 million
  • see wheat production fall by 20 per cent, cereal fall by 15 per cent and oil seed rape fall by 37 per cent and consequently push up food prices.

This briefing therefore examines:

  • What glyphosate is and how it is used
  • The views of stakeholders – manufacturers, farmers and NGOs – and recent campaigns
  • The EU’s current approval for glyphosate
  • Concerns about pesticide residues in food
  • The potential impacts of Brexit.


Further reading

The European Commission has a glyphosate web page which charts EU-related decisions and developments.

The European Parliament Research Service blog post Renewal of the authorisation of the use of the herbicide substance glyphosate sets out the history of EU action on glyphosate up to January 2017.

The Commons Library briefing Brexit: impact across policy areas provides more background information on pesticide regulation and the possible implications of Brexit (CBP 07213, 26 August 2016: see page 63).

Documents to download

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