Glyphosate is used in large quantities in agriculture to combat weeds. This will remain the case in the EU for the time being; the approval of the controversial weed killer will be extended by ten years. However, there will be new requirements and restrictions, the EU Commission announced on Thursday in Brussels. There is some clear criticism of the product from environmental associations and science. But what does it mean?

The weed killer works on almost all green plants and has a spectrum as broad as hardly any other plant killer. The substance does not occur in nature. It blocks an enzyme in the plants that they need to produce vital amino acids. It is also found in fungi and microorganisms, but not in animals and humans. Glyphosate is not absorbed through the roots, but through green components such as the leaves. The substance spreads and causes a plant to wither completely and die.

The former US manufacturer Monsanto, which is now part of the Bayer Group, introduced the drug in 1974 under the trade name “Roundup”. Today, the substance accounts for around 25 percent of the global herbicide market, according to the Glyphosate Renewal Group – an association of companies that sell the product. According to the latest figures from the Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety, almost 4,100 tons were sold in Germany in 2021.

The vast majority of this comes from agriculture in Germany. But it is also used in horticulture. According to the German Farmers’ Association, glyphosate is used on around 37 percent of arable land. This is intended to keep the fields free of weeds before or shortly after sowing and again after the harvest.

Directly in your own garden and indirectly in the supermarket. There are pesticides containing glyphosate for beds and borders. Because it is used in agriculture, traces of the active ingredient can also be found in food – and not just in those that come directly from the field. For example, it can get into meat through animal feed, explains the Hamburg consumer advice center. Glyphosate has also been discovered in other products such as beer. But the amount is harmless, writes the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. If you don’t want to consume glyphosate, you should use organic products.

Fewer wild plants in and next to the fields mean there is less habitat for insects and field birds. This also harms agriculture itself, because its yields depend largely on pollinating insects. And the herbicide is ultimately found throughout the entire food chain – including mammals. A study by the University of Konstanz concludes that glyphosate impairs the ability of bumblebees to learn, reducing their chances of reproduction and survival.

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

In contrast, the European Chemicals Agency only wrote again 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, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among others, have also come to such a conclusion. Glyphosate manufacturer Bayer also rejects the suspicion that the weed killer is carcinogenic. Nevertheless, the group is faced with numerous lawsuits in the USA. In certain cases, Bayer had to pay high damages, but on the other hand it also won lawsuits.