|Crop spraying. CC photo by Tim Parkinson on Flickr|
With global sales of the most-used glyphosate-containing herbicide, Monsanto's 'Roundup', reaching $5.46 billion in 2012 and expected to reach $8.79 billion by 2019, it would take some courage for Europe to declare the chemical unsafe. Add to this that glyphosate-tolerance is the most common GM trait being added into crops of all kinds: removing glyphosate from the GM equation at this stage would spell disaster for agriculture in the Americas and elsewhere.
Germany is not only being politically correct in pronouncing glyphosate safe: the chemical, in pure form, isn't at all bad as these things go. It's easy to pander to big business and avoid offending the US by generating a positive risk assessment for glyhphosate.
However, the reality of this cynical political posturing to uphold trade has recently become evident.
Independent scientists have repeatedly warned that the risk assessment of glyphosate has been applied out of context and is, simply, wrong.
Glyphosate is not particularly toxic by itself because it doesn't penetrate into cells easily. Herbicide formulae have to include 'surfactant' chemicals which help glyphosate into the cell. The most common surfactant added to formulae, such as Roundup, is known as 'POEA'. POEA is toxic. It also makes glyphosate more toxic. And both become even more toxic when they're part of a cocktail of other surfactants.
The jury's not out on this: Germany has banned all POEA-containing weedkillers.
So, while the UK has 424 (POEA content unknown) glyphosate-containing products approved for use, Germany has only 90 with zero POEA.
This bizarre mismatch of EU member states has come about because, although Germany has been warning about POEA toxicity for fifteen years, and EU Regulations have demanded a move away from single-active substance risk-assessments, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) framework needed to implement these regulations just hasn't happened.
Even Germany's own unilateral demands for more safety data on chronic toxicity of POEA led to debate but no action, except that the herbicide manufacturers have removed POEA from formulae supplied to Germany.
POEA remains 'safe' in Europe because the data proving otherwise have been avoided.
Meanwhile, how Germany pulled off its ban is a based on studies which are a 'Trade Secret' even if it's making the rest of us sick.
A German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) source said
“We should have a deeper look at co-formulants in the future. The formulation of glyphosate and POEA is an important lesson in that there might be specific surfactants, which can increase the toxicity of the active substance. We don't assume this is common, but it is an increasingly important factor within the field of toxicity which we are aware of.”
As GM crops are increasingly made tolerant to a raft of herbicides, each with its own surfactants , the BfR source makes a key point which is very relevant to GM food safety.
But, why should we “not assume” surfactants can't commonly increase the toxicity of another substance? Laboratory workers treat any chemical which acts as a 'carrier' to ferry other substances into the body as if it has a skull and cross-bones on it, although the carrier itself may well not be toxic. This is because in a toxin-laden environment, carriers can transport sickness and death. Sadly, the modern conventional agri-environment is awash with toxins just waiting to be ferried into our food chain.
You might suggest to UK regulators that weedkillers which are dangerous to Germans are probably not too safe for us either.
- Pete Farrer & Marianne Falck, Toxic glyphosate herbicides fly under the EU's regulatory radar, The Ecologist, 12.09.14