Glyphosate is a herbicide, and one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide (Photo: Laura Arias/Pexels)
The EU member states must decide whether to renew the approval of glyphosate, the world's most widely used herbicide
A UOC expert has taken part in a study to expand critical research on the agrochemical industry, its regulation and the toxicity of pesticides
The ban on certain pesticides, such as glyphosate, could lead to a paradigm shift in the primary sector, and an opportunity for significant progress in technological, socio-economic and employment terms
Glyphosate is a herbicide, and one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide. Its widespread and indiscriminate use has seen it become very effective in both agriculture and gardening. However, the use of glyphosate has been highly controversial since it was brought to market in 1974, due to its possible harmful effects on human health and the environmental consequences which may be detrimental to biodiversity. This remains the case to this day. Monsanto lost the patent in 1994, which triggered its production and use in countries including China and India.
"The debate and research on the impacts of glyphosate have shown clear weaknesses and failures. There have been very harmful practices as well as studies published with funding from agrochemical companies, and a great deal of ambiguity in general," said Lucía Argüelles, a researcher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), who works in the Urban Transformation and Global Change Laboratory (TURBA) at the university's Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3).
The conflicting arguments make it very difficult to determine the extent to which the pesticide may be harmful. "The regulatory bodies seem to be paralysed by this situation. They think it's reasonable, although it's quite obvious to assume that throwing tons of a chemical on the fields where we grow our food to kill plants is going to have some impact," she said.
Voting on the approval of glyphosate
The European Commission has until the end of 2023 to decide whether to extend the approval of the use of glyphosate in its member states for another five or ten years. The organization has declared that it is in favour of its renewal, although the final decision must be put to a vote by the EU countries. The member states voted on 13 October 2023, but the committee did not come to a decision as there wasn't a qualified majority either in favour or against. The vote must therefore take place once again before 15 December this year.
This vote takes place in a context in which the European Commission aims to reduce the use of pesticides by 50% by 2030, and in which Germany has already announced the withdrawal of glyphosate at the end of this year.
States, institutions and other bodies in favour of the renewal argue that farmers would find it very expensive to maintain production levels on their farms without using glyphosate. According to Argüelles, relying solely on the economic argument is simply an attempt to maintain the status quo. Change must also be seen as an opportunity. There are many examples of organic garden, cereal and vine projects that operate without any problems. The issue is one of scaling that model: "It's time to establish a good European agricultural policy which includes a technological change that enables a massive reduction in the use of pesticides. We also need to prohibit imports of food treated with certain substances, and the production of pesticides and their subsequent exportation to other countries. We shouldn't be moving our polluting production elsewhere," she argued.
The difference in votes between the EU countries is not based solely on belief in scientific studies or estimates. "The major doubts among the member states are related to whether each country will be able to make the transition to a different type of agriculture, without significant economic losses and without making the farmers very angry", she pointed out. At present, "some countries are more prepared than others" to meet this challenge. "Change is said to depend on countries' wealth, but I think it's about the political and technical capacity to create a plan for that change."
Argüelles recently participated in a multidisciplinary research study aimed at updating the social science research agenda on pesticides. The article, published in the prestigious journal Agriculture and Human Values, calls for new research priorities based on the regulatory, technological, scientific, social and ecological changes of recent decades. For example, weeds are increasingly resistant to the most commonly used herbicides, including glyphosate due to the widespread use of pesticides. "This means that more and more glyphosate has to be used, or that more toxic herbicides, such as paraquat and dicamba, are being used once again," she warned.
The effects of regulatory changes are another issue highlighted in the study, which also applies to glyphosate. "What happens when a pesticide is banned? There may be unintended effects in terms of an increase in the use of other pesticides, and farmers may be slow to adapt to other methods or practices. This may have economic, political, and ecological consequences." Now, at a time when many pesticides have recently been banned and the use of others is subject to debate, the article emphasizes that it is important to understand these changes in order to design programmes for transition.
The article also calls for interdisciplinary studies on the impacts of pesticides. Its conclusion points the way the field of applied science needs to go: "Ultimately, collaborations among social scientists and across the social and biophysical sciences can illuminate recent transformations and their uneven socioecological effects. A reinvigorated critical scholarship that embraces the multifaceted nature of pesticides can identify the social and ecological constraints that drive pesticide use and support alternatives to chemically driven industrial agriculture."
Reduction of pesticides in the sector
According to Argüelles, a pesticide reduction programme must be accompanied by enhanced mechanical technologies, as is already the case in northern Europe. This change will also increase the need for labour and improve working conditions in the sector. "The current situation is a great opportunity to solve many problems at the same time, such as unstable employment in agriculture, the lack of generational renewal, the high level of environmental impacts, and low income. It would be a mistake to treat the regulation of pesticides in isolation within the system and agricultural policy."
"We can't go on poisoning ourselves, especially the people who use this pesticide directly, such as field workers and farmers, or polluting the environment and killing the pollinating insects that we depend on for our food production. There will have to be a drastic reduction in the use of pesticides in the future, and glyphosate is the most widely used in the world. I think what needs to happen is clear."
This UOC research contributes to Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 3, Good Health and Well-being, and 12, Responsible Consumption and Production.
Mansfield, B., Werner, M., Berndt, C. et al. A new critical social science research agenda on pesticides. Agric Hum Values (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-023-10492-w
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Researcher at the UOC