Global Perspective | Glyphosate’s EU approval a telling sign

EARLIER this month, the European Commission put a proposal to extend the authorisation of glyphosate (most readily known in the market as RoundUp™) by five years, to the vote of the EU member states.  

It was ultimately approved on the basis that Germany voted in favour, pushing the population represented by a yes vote to the required qualified majority.  

In the immediate term, this is good news for Australian grain farmers.  

Had the approval not been granted, there was a chance the maximum residue level for glyphosate on imported grains may have been reduced, or eliminated, making it challenging and more costly for nations, such as Australia, to meet European Union import requirements.  

And with the EU accounting for 60 per cent of Australia’s canola exports, this is a critical market for the Australian grains sector.  

Moreover, other countries have been known to follow the lead set by the EU.  

The five-year extension was, however, not the 15 years applied for by Monsanto, RoundUp’s manufacturer.  

Nor was it the immediate ban called for by some member states and special interest groups.  

It was a compromise that was not based on the science of the European Chemical agency that has declared there to be no link between glyphosate and cancer or reproductive effects, nor the findings of the European Food Safety Authority which came to the same conclusion.  

Further, even with this reduced approval period, the vote only just made it over the line. 

This is all telling in terms of decision making and the role of science, and that the debate over glyphosate use is far from over.

EU member states can set their own more stringent standards in relation to chemical use.  

Already glyphosate is banned from use in public areas by local councils in the Netherlands and, since the five-year re-authorisation, France has committed to banning use country wide in three years.   

As such, we can expect glyphosate use in the EU to gradually decline in coming years.   

For grain production in the EU, the effect is not expected to be significant because glyphosate use in the EU is already less widespread than in Australia or the US for example, because of the EU’s greater use of conventional tillage and their non-GM production.  

Precedents suggest that EU domestic changes in relation to permitted use of glyphosate will not translate to altered trade requirements.  

GM soymeal from the US is imported to the EU despite its own non-GM policy and neonicotinoid insecticides can be used on product imported to the EU despite being banned for use there.  

The renewable energy directive requirements for canola are possibly an exception to this. 

For grain producers outside of the EU, the ban of glyphosate use there (but no change in import restrictions) would deliver a competitive opportunity to supply lower-cost grain.   

The recent re-authorisation of glyphosate in the EU is however a sure “advertisement” for the rising importance of perception in the agricultural supply chain and that value is not just about the price.