Austria has dramatically upped the stakes in Europe’s long-running glyphosate battle by putting itself on track to become the first EU country to fully ban the controversial herbicide.
The unexpectedly decisive action from Austria on Wednesday will heap pressure on EU heavyweights France and Germany, which are riven by political infighting over whether to ban the key ingredient in Bayer’s ubiquitous Roundup weedkiller. While both Paris and Berlin are looking to phase out glyphosate, they have held back on an outright ban because of a backlash from farmers who argue that they need the chemical to maintain yields of crops from barley to carrots.
Austria now looks set to inject fresh impetus into the broader European debate by holding a vote on a ban on July 2. The bill is expected to pass after the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) backed a proposal by the Social Democrats to outlaw all commercial uses of glyphosate, ahead of elections later this year.
The two parties gave different signals, however, over how quickly any ban could come into force. Norbert Hofer, the FPÖ’s party leader, said that a prohibition would be unlikely to take effect until after a “transitional period,” in which farmers could find alternative forms of weed control.
By contrast, Ruth Manninger, a spokesperson for the Social Democrats, suggested that implementation could be quick. “Should the … proposal get the required majority as it stands, the ban of glyphosate will be in place the day after its announcement in the federal law gazette.”
Glyphosate has sparked an epic legal and regulatory clash ever since the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) ruled that it was “probably carcinogenic” to humans in 2015. Other regulators such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued risk assessments with opposite conclusions.
National level bans for glyphosate would also only compound the woes of Bayer, the German chemical giant that has inherited thousands of glyphosate lawsuits through its $63 billion acquisition of Monsanto last year.
The European Commission says that a plant product prohibition is only permissible in a specific and limited area in which, for example, “some animals are being killed.” A Commission source said: “The active substance can be banned on a small level, but you cannot do it for the whole [country]. We also have to see the reasons behind it.”
Greenpeace spokesman Sebastian Theissing said that the Austrian initiative is “long overdue.”
“If finally adopted in July, this ban would be a real milestone for the protection of our health as well as biodiversity. And it would set a great example to the rest of Europe,” he said.
The enzyme-blocking chemical was finally relicensed by an EU committee vote in 2017 but with a reduced five-year clearance and a caveat allowing limited embargoes.
While the Commission argues that member countries would not be able to issue outright bans on the active ingredient itself (glyphosate), officials do note that it would be permissible to draw up legislation against concoctions that contain the ingredient.
“National bans on glyphosate-based plant protection products or restrictions on their use would be possible,” the Commission said. “The EU states do not have to hide behind the European Commission.”
As European Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis put it last week: “It is in the hands of member states to assess, authorize and to allow to use [the mixtures which make up a pesticide].”
While some restrictions on glyphosate use have been introduced in France, Italy, Belgium and other states, “it was never the case that one of the countries wanted to ban it before,” an EU official said.
An Austrian ban was first mooted in 2017 but quietly shelved when the FPÖ entered a coalition government with the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) of Sebastian Kurz.
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That equation changed after last month’s collapse of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government, given strong public feeling in a country where around a fifth of farm produce is organic.
The Social Democrat leader, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, said she is “pleased” that her party’s long-standing effort on banning the controversial herbicide would “finally pay off,” now that the Social Democrats’ motion had a majority in parliament.
The ÖVP recently made headlines in Austria when its lead candidate in the European Parliament election, Othmar Karas, said he opposed a general ban of glyphosate.
“We also have legal concerns,” said Ferdinand Lembacher, the secretary-general of Austria’s chamber of agriculture. “The approval of active substances is a matter for the European Union. In our opinion, there must be good reasons to override this as a nation state.”
“We, as the chamber of agriculture, do not want a go-it-alone approach because this would mean a distortion of competition for our farmers. We are hobbling our farmers, this is the main concern we’re having.”
A compromise proposal by ÖVP lawmaker Georg Strasser is expected to propose restricting glyphosate use but only in clearly defined areas.
Utz Klages, a spokesman for Bayer AG, said the company did “not want to speculate” on a potential vote in the Austrian parliament.
“Austrian farmers have been using glyphosate safely and effectively for many years. They understand the critical role this product continues to play in helping to manage weeds and deliver crops to the marketplace. Banning glyphosate will not help to improve food security, safety or sustainability in the country,” Klages said.
Helmut Burtscher-Schaden, the head of Austria’s GLOBAL 2000 environmental group, said the initiative was “a great success for the environment as well as for human health, and in the long term it will also prove to be good for Austrian agriculture.”