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France takes lead on glyphosate alternatives

Ministers are encouraging farmers to change practices

Ecology Minister Nicolas Hulot has joined five other countries’ ministers in asking the EU to research alternatives to the controversial pesticide glyphosate and ‘prepare exit plans’ – a typically French better-safe-than-sorry approach.

In a letter to senior European commissioners, the ministers also asked for further research into possible dangers from the substance (best-known under the Roundup brand) and invited other states to join a French-led working group on developing alternatives and accompanying farmers who wish to change practices.

This follows the commis­sion’s decision last year to extend permission for its use for another five years – and a decision by President Macron that France will ban it unilaterally in three years at the most, or as soon as alternatives are found.

The commission’s spokeswoman for food safety said France said the commission is preparing a response to the ministers. She added France is entitled to a unilateral ban if it wants. “The approval of active substances on each territory is a competence of the member state and if France wants to it can stop approving [pesticide] products containing it, so French farmers would not be able to use it.” But France could not ban imports from other EU states still using it.

There have been contradictory findings on glyphosate’s potential risk to health, notably as to whether it may be carcinogenic. A 2015 WHO study found it ‘probably’ was, based on exposure from nearby spraying (as opposed to in food) but most recently the US Environ­mental Protection Agency said it is ‘not likely to be carcinogenic to humans’ and there are ‘no other meaningful risks to human health’ when it is used correctly.

France’s views are typical of a nation which has enshrined a ‘precaution principle’ in its constitution (the only one to do so explicitly, apart from Ecuador). Relating mostly to the environment, this says where harm could result from something that might turn out to be serious and irreversible, and even if such harm is uncertain according to current science, authorities should evaluate risks and adopt provisional, proportional measures to fend it off.

A new survey showed 93% of the French think their health is being affected by pesticides in food. Casino now offers a range of frozen vegetables ‘guaranteed without pesticide residues’ and checked by an independent lab.

Carrefour meanwhile offers products like kiwis and durum wheat ‘grown without insecticides’ and broccoli, cauliflower and tomatoes without herbicides. It says long-term it hopes to persuade its suppliers to use chemicals only exceptionally (such as where it is vital to save a crop).

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