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Under the microscope: glyphosate

Under the microscope This month: glyphosate

Under the microscope: Shutterstock

What is glyphosate?

It’s a herbicide, used globally as a weed killer. It was developed and commercialised in 1974 in a formulation marketed as “Roundup” by the agricultural company Monsanto. Today, it is the active ingredient of more than 750 broad-spectrum herbicides.

Erm, OK. What’s that got to do with biomedical science?

Some bodies, including the World Health Organization, classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, but this has been rejected by others, including the EU’s European Chemicals Agency.

Presumably this is in the news at the moment? 

Yes, it is. The current glyphosate licence runs out in the EU on 15 December and there was a vote in November about whether to renew the licence for another five years.

What was the result of the vote?

Only half of the 28 member states backed the European Commission proposal to renew. An EU appeal committee will now try to rule on the issue.

Which way did the UK vote?

It was among the 14 states that voted in favour of renewing. Nine voted against – including France
and Italy, while Germany abstained.

What does the evidence say?

Expert opinion is split. One UN study called the chemical “probably carcinogenic”, but other scientists said it was safe to use. The European Food Safety Authority says that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans.

Have other countries banned it?

Sri Lanka banned it in 2015 – though the tea industry opposes the decision. Colombia has stopped aerial spraying – even though it had been used to kill illegal coca plants. 

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