The perennial David-and-Goliath bogeyman of Eurosceptics is the faceless Brussels bureaucrat, who relishes heaping business-killing regulations on mom-and-pop farmers and shop owners. But in the shadow of Brexit’s populist revolt, one fraught regulatory debate over the pesticide Roundup shows that cries of “overregulation” mask systemic threats to public health, food sovereignty, and labor rights. And despite political grandstanding against Brussels, the Eurocracy is often the people’s last line of defense against some subsurface environmental hazards.
The international debate over regulating glyphosate, Roundup’s core ingredient, is rooted in environmental and health risks surrounding both the herbicide itself and the genetically modified crops that depend on such agrochemicals. Last year, a large research review by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research Against Cancer (IARC) offered what appeared to be a definitive opinion, concluding glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic.” But in June, the European Commission punted again, deciding to extend glyphosate’s license another 18 months. This was followed by tighter usage restrictions that still fell far short of the full ban advocates were seeking—and that will still leave workers in limbo.
There are many consumer-based arguments against Roundup—not just passionate fears about “frankenfoods” but also concrete sustainability challenges from pesticide resistance and monocultures. However, the most immediate threat is likely not to people eating pesticide-grown foods but to the workers who harvest and process them. Agricultural workers’ exposure to pesticides like Roundup is far more intense than anything ordinary consumers experience.
The IARC’s review cited occupational-health studies in the United States, Canada, and Sweden linking glyphosate exposure at work to blood cancers and “DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals, and in human and animal cells in vitro.” Studies on forestry and landscaping workers revealed contamination “in air during spraying, in water, and in food” and “in the blood and urine of agricultural workers, indicating absorption.”
Then a separate regulatory body, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), somehow drew the exact opposite conclusion, reiterating the industry’s argument and ruling that cancer risk was actually unlikely.
But that Monsanto-friendly analysis, according to Corporate Europe Observatory, is suspiciously opaque, relying on several undisclosed mystery studies. Public access to this research is evidently barred due to the industry’s sensitivity on “trade secrets.” Critics read this analysis as pseudoscience at worst, or at best, another sign of systematic obfuscation to uphold the power asymmetry between labor and corporate actors in EU regulatory debates.