Glyphosate, the ubiquitous herbicide, may not really be poison, but it could well be the most politicized substance in Europe. In recent days, a glyphosate controversy has revealed much about the continent’s decision-making processes.
Most European countries don’t allow the cultivation of genetically modified crops. But glyphosate, the effective weed killer produced by US-based Monsanto specifically for those kinds of crops, just survived another round of approvals.
From a scientific point of view, that makes little sense: While there’s no evidence the genetic modification of food as such is dangerous to humans, some studies have found glyphosate potentially carcinogenic. This call has been disputed, but if one wants to be cautious, it’s the weed killer -- the most popular in the world -- that’s to be avoided. So environmentalists, and powerful green parties, have fought to have it banned.
The European Commission, which has funded its own studies of the weed killer, proposed last year that it be approved for another 10 years (but not the maximum 15, since new data could emerge showing the substance is harmful after all). But the European Parliament, in which environmentalists and leftist parties are strong, delivered a nonbinding resolution last month calling for glyphosate to be banned immediately for household use and for agriculture starting in 2022.
On Monday, European Union member states unexpectedly voted to extend the weed killer’s license for five years. The vote wasn’t supposed to succeed because Germany was expected to abstain and several other countries intended to follow suit. That would have deprived the commission of the necessary majority. Instead, Germany backed the extension, setting off a domestic political scandal.
The official version of what happened is that Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt, who had the right to cast Germany’s vote, did so without consulting Chancellor Angela Merkel or Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, who was against the renewal. Merkel gently scolded the minister, who is a member of the Christian Social Union -- the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union -- at a press conference Tuesday, saying his behavior “must not be repeated.” There’s probably more to it, though. Reports emerged on Wednesday that Schmidt had informed Peter Altmaier, Merkel’s chief of staff, of how he was going to vote.
Merkel’s center-right bloc is dedicated to supporting big German companies. Last year, when Bayer, the pharmaceutical and chemical giant, made a deal to acquire Monsanto and the Greens protested the merger, the CDU defended it in parliament on the grounds that it would strengthen German business globally. The merger is still under review by antitrust regulators in a number of countries, and the CDU/CSU isn’t interested in undermining it by backing a ban on one of Monsanto’s top products. The break-off of coalition talks with the Greens earlier this month provided the party with a window for acting in Bayer’s interest.
Merkel, however, couldn’t put her name to the vote. Hendricks, the glyphosate objector, is a member of the Social Democratic Party, with which she’s just starting new coalition talks. Acting directly against its partner would be an affront to the SPD’s fragile willingness to cooperate. A top Social Democrat has already argued publicly that Merkel should pay a price for Schmidt’s vote by approving a bill her party had been blocking, which draws a path to full-time jobs for part-time workers. In any case, the glyphosate matter has poisoned the launch of the coalition negotiations.
At least European Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, responsible for food safety, was happy. “Today’s vote shows that when we all want and put effort in it, we are able to accept and to share our collective responsibility in decision making,” he tweeted.
It’s never that simple in Europe, though. It’s not just that Merkel’s refusal to openly back Schmidt’s vote wasn’t exactly about responsibility. The decision itself likely won’t stand throughout Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted after the vote that he’d instructed the government to enact a glyphosate ban in France within three years. Italy, too, opposed the extension and is likely to ban the weed killer. Under EU rules, member states are empowered to issue and withdraw their own permissions for the sale and use of products containing any substance approved by the EU.
Which countries ban glyphosate and when depends most of all on the strength of farming lobbies. So far, glyphosate has been hard to replace: Other herbicides just aren’t as effective or as easy on the soil, and the best of the alternatives are more expensive to boot.
The current fudge -- a cautious five-year extension with an easy loophole for unwilling member states -- is a typical European compromise involving national political actors, big corporations, farmers, Brussels technocrats and the noisy but insufficiently empowered European Parliament. It’s a decision that pleases few people but checks a box and makes an issue go away for a while. In the end, it’s up to market players such as Bayer, Monsanto and their competitors to develop a suitable replacement for glyphosate. They should hurry up: Five years isn’t a long time, and the debate won’t be any less fraught next time around.
By Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.