A controversial weed killer linked to cancer has won a new five-year licence in Europe, but citizens are fighting back

The herbicide glyphosate, a key ingredient in Roundup, has been deemed 'probably carcinogenic to humans'. Now, a fast-growing campaign led by European citizens is fighting to see it banned

Elizabeth Monaghan
Wednesday 20 December 2017 13:14 GMT
Roundup is one of the world's most common weed killers
Roundup is one of the world's most common weed killers (Reuters)

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The controversial pesticide glyphosate – which is the key ingredient in one of the world’s bestselling weed killers – has recently had its license renewed by the EU for another five years. This means it will continue to be used by both farmers and homeowners, and will be available for sale across Europe. This is despite ongoing debate about how safe the pesticide actually is.

The decision came just weeks before the current license was due to expire in December and broke a months-long impasse between member states who had previously rejected renewals for 15 and 10 years.

Despite Brexit, the UK is still affected by the decision, because it is part of the EU’s agriculture, environment and food safety regimes until March 2019. After that date, a separate process and a longer license for glyphosate may beckon.

Why the controversy?

Glyphosate is so controversial because it has previously been linked to cancer. In 2015, The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer stated that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”. But since then, two EU agencies – the European Food Safety Agency and the European Chemicals Agency – have concluded that it is safe.

In the run-up to the re-licensing decision, around four million European citizens signed various petitions calling for a ban on the pesticide. Behind the scenes, the organisation WeMove.EU – which describes itself as a citizens’ movement campaigning for a better Europe – has been coordinating much of the effort.

How have they campaigned so far?

Campaigners have used a range of strategies – days of action, petitions, protests – but most prominently, earlier this year WeMove.EU launched a European Citizens’ Initiative, which has given the campaign a way into the formal EU decision making process.

WeMove launched a European Citizens’ Initiative after days of action, protests and petitions were unsuccessful
WeMove launched a European Citizens’ Initiative after days of action, protests and petitions were unsuccessful (Reuters)

The European Citizens’ Initiative is the EU’s flagship (but still not widely known) effort to establish participatory democracy in the EU. It was introduced by the Lisbon treaty and has since become a major instrument in addressing democratic change.

A citizens’ initiative has to be backed by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least seven out of the 28 member states. These citizens can then call upon the European Commission to make a legislative proposal on an issue where it is perceived that EU action is required

Has this ever happened before?

Since the initiative was launched in April 2012, only four campaigns (including Ban Glyphosate) have succeeded in gaining one million signatures out of 47 that have been proposed. A further 21 have been rejected outright on the grounds that they fell outside the treaties. Overzealousness by the Commission in implementing the European Citizens’ Initiative, excessive requirements on organisers and a lack of follow-up have been blamed for the low legislative impact.

So it’s not hard to see why by 2016 – just four years after coming into operation – the initiative was almost on the point of collapse. But reforms to the regulation that governs the initiative have been proposed, and the glyphosate campaign – as well as Brexit, which has prompted four additional campaigns – has breathed new life into it.

So has the campaign made a difference?

Ban Glyphosate is the fastest growing campaign in the history of the European Citizens’ Initiative. By the beginning of July 2017, the campaign had met both the thresholds in terms of signature count and countries involved.

WeMove.EU managed this through a combination of their network of partner organisations – including Greenpeace, the Corporate Europe Observatory and Campact – and over 90 other organisations. They also used a sophisticated online signature collection system, and an active social media strategy formed around the slogan, “We could get toxic Glyphosate banned, but only if we act together”.

In the UK, the campaign also received an early boost when the link was retweeted by celebrity naturalist Chris Packham. Support from citizens in the UK was considerable and with over 94,000 signatures it is the only one of the four successful European Citizens’ Initiatives to meet the threshold in the UK.

What’s next?

Despite the re-licensing of glyphosate, the organisers say that banning a single pesticide was only one part of the campaign. It is claimed that highlighting the strength and depth of citizen opposition to widespread pesticide use and to the existing approval system were the ultimate goals. And efforts will no doubt continue in the EU up to Brexit, and well beyond.

That said, the UK was one of the 18 member states that voted to renew the licence. And ultimately, in light of this decision, the main aim of the campaign – an outright ban on the sale and use of glyphosate – looks to have so far been unsuccessful.

But despite this, the pesticide remains a source of controversy. Germany’s support for its re-licensing turned out to be the the result of a decision made by the agriculture minister, Christian Schmidt, against the views of other ministers and without consulting Angela Merkel. While in France, Emmanuel Macron vowed to press ahead with a phasing out of the chemical within three years regardless of the re-licensing. And given that the Commission is obliged to give a response to the European Citizens’ Initiative by early next year, it may still be a case of watch this space.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in