Today’s decision is the temporary conclusion to a long dispute in the EU: the approval for the pesticide glyphosate was actually supposed to expire on December 15, 2023. But the EU states have repeatedly been unable to agree on whether they should be extended or whether the active ingredient should disappear from the market. In such a dispute, the EU Commission can decide largely on its own. Which she did this Thursday by approving glyphosate for another ten years. It is based on scientific assessments, including by the European Food Safety Authority EFSA, the European Chemicals Agency ECHA and experts from the EU member states.

According to the Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL), almost 4,100 tons were sold in Germany in 2021. The product is primarily used in agriculture, for example in the cultivation of grain, corn or rapeseed. Areas are often sprayed free of weeds with glyphosate before sowing, before the seeds germinate or after harvesting. The product is also used to combat weeds in vineyards or fruit growing.

Glyphosate is a herbicide that kills plants. In contrast to many other pesticides, it is not directed against insects or fungi – but against other wild plants that compete with crops for water, nutrients and light – and are therefore combated by farmers.

Glyphosate is absorbed by plants primarily through the leaves, but also through other green parts such as stems. It blocks an enzyme in the plant that it needs to produce amino acids – and from them proteins. The substance spreads and causes a plant to wither completely and die. Glyphosate is also so attractive for agriculture because it is effective against both flowering wild herbs and grasses.

The main problem with glyphosate is not its acute toxicity to humans or animals – but the fact that it does exactly what it is supposed to: it efficiently destroys every green plant in an area. Glyphosate mist that is blown away may even have an effect far beyond the area, for example on aquatic plants in adjacent bodies of water.

In any case, a field treated with glyphosate after the harvest is dead from a plant perspective. And not just from a plant perspective: fewer wild plants in and next to the fields mean there is less food and habitat for insects and field birds. This also harms agriculture itself, because its yields depend largely on pollinating insects. A study by the University of Konstanz concludes that glyphosate also impairs the ability of bumblebees to learn, reducing their chances of reproduction and survival. The herbicide is now found throughout the entire food chain – including mammals.

There has been a debate about this for years. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a body of the World Health Organization, classified the drug as “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015. This means that a risk of cancer is fundamentally possible. Raw and processed meat, for example, also falls into this relatively soft category.

In contrast, the European Chemicals Agency wrote in 2022 that the scientific evidence was not sufficient to classify glyphosate as a carcinogenic, gene-modifying or reproductively toxic substance. The EU food safety authority EFSA, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also come to such a conclusion.

No. The EU Commission has attached new restrictions and requirements to the extension of approval: In the future, glyphosate may no longer be used for “siccation” or drying out, i.e. no longer, for example, to kill grain and thus cause the ears to ripen more quickly.

Improved spray nozzles and 5 to 10 meter wide buffer strips in the fields are intended to reduce the amount of glyphosate that is unintentionally released into the environment. In addition, the risks to animals and plants caused by glyphosate should be examined more comprehensively, such as the effects on small mammals such as voles, on wild herbs and on biodiversity as a whole.

A perfect “replacement herbicide” for glyphosate is not available. Instead, farmers, fruit growers or winegrowers would have to resort to other options for combating weeds: in fields, weeds can also be plowed under, pulled out mechanically with so-called cultivators or controlled through crop rotation. In fruit or wine growing, there are also mechanical devices that specifically pluck or cut it up; sometimes grazing animals such as sheep are also used. Such alternative methods are often more expensive, and plowing in particular can also increase soil erosion.

Organic farms have long shown that it can also be done without glyphosate, because glyphosate is banned in organic farming. The dispute over the substance is therefore more than just a discussion about a single pesticide. Rather, the question being debated is: Should highly intensified agriculture be continued into the future or not?