In the next few days the European Commission is scheduled to vote on whether to extend the registration of glyphosate, the active ingredient of the worlds most widely used weedkiller, Roundup. If an extension is not approved, it will essentially lead to the banning of glyphosate in Europe. Despite the overwhelming balance of evidence pointing to glyphosate being safe, and essential for many farming systems, it appears that the vote will be going down to the wire in what has become an overly politicised process.
Much of this latest round of controversy about glyphosate was triggered by a 2015 International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organisation) review that found glyphosate to be probably carcinogenic. The IARC takes a hazard based approach to assessing carcinogenic potential which does not incorporate any assessment of how the hazard might be managed. As a result, indoor emissions from burning wood, high temperature frying, some shift work, and consumption of red meat fall into the same category of potential carcinogens as glyphosate. Studies which have taken a risk based approach have concluded that the use of glyphosate in Australia does not pose a cancer risk to humans.
In a twist on the original IARC report, Reuters is now reporting that drafts of the review were heavily edited to remove mentions of studies that found that glyphosate was not carcinogenic.
Since the IARC report was released, concerted campaigns by farming groups in Europe have been waged to provide a counter narrative that provides a positive message about glyphosate including the #glyphosateisvital campaign by the National Farming Union in the UK. This campaign has emphasised the environmental and economic benefits of glyphosate to the UK as well as the evidence supporting glyphosate as being safe if used appropriately.
However, it seems that despite these campaigns there is a significant and vocal movement of consumers that have decided their picture of farming does not include glyphosate and these consumers are influencing the political direction of the European Commission. Over one million signatures have been received for a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) which calls for the banning of glyphosate. An ECI is a kind of petition sanctioned by the European Commission, and the Commission is required to respond to ECIs with more than one million valid signatures.
Many people are calling for Australian agriculture to move to high value consumer focused business models. The 2017 Rabobank Leadership award winner David Crombie being the latest to advocate for producing “what customers really want”. The EC decision on glyphosate will potentially tell us that customers in Europe do not want glyphosate.
It is likely that will be many more challenges to established farming systems in the future brought about by consumer preference and not necessarily backed by the weight of science or economics. This is a reality of the power of modern consumer movements and one that Australian agriculture must be prepared for. If farm groups do not anticipate and prepare for the political influence of consumers the disruptive impacts will be substantial.