Austria reignites Europes weedkiller war

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Austria has dramatically upped the stakes in Europes long-running glyphosate battle by putting itself on track to become the first EU country to 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 Bayers 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 FPÖs 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.”

An Austrian ban was first mooted in 2017 but quietly shelved when the FPÖ entered a coalition government with the center-right Austrian Peoples Party (ÖVP) of Sebastian Kurz.

Glyphosate has sparked an epic legal and regulatory clash ever since the World Health Organizations 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.

Farmers fears

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.

“Austrian farmers have been using glyphosate safely and effectively for many years” — Utz Klages, spokesman for Bayer AG

An Austrian ban was first mooted in 2017 but quietly shelved when the FPÖ entered a coalition government with the center-right Austrian Peoples Party (ÖVP) of Sebastian Kurz.

That equation changed after last months 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,

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