Glyphosate: Europe divided by the world’s most widely used pesticide

This article was originally published in French

The European Commission is preparing to renew the authorisation of glyphosate for a further ten years, with a vote scheduled for 13 October in Brussels.


The European Union authorised the use of the herbicide glyphosate in 2017 for an initial five years, for a further year in December 2022.

Brussels’ decision to give this chemical the green light was based on conclusions from a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) report, published in July, which found that glyphosate did not present a “critical area of concern”. But, this resolution has given rise to debate and concern within EU Member States.

Théo, a victim of weedkiller

In 2006, Sabine was still unaware that she was pregnant while using glyphosate at work. However, this powerful herbicide was about to mark her life forever.

“Every year, as part of my job as a horse ride organiser, I had to use a glyphosate-based weed killer on our riding arena. It’s a sandy area of about 700 square metres. And it took me several days to do it every time,” Sabine Grataloup told Euronews. “And that’s when Théo was in my belly, it was the beginning of my pregnancy and that’s exactly when Théo’s larynx, trachea and oesophagus were malformed.”

In 2018 Sabine sued Monsanto, the US agrochemical giant that sold the pesticide. The link between glyphosate and Theo’s malformations was recognised by a compensation commission for prenatal children exposed to pesticides.

This is the first time in France the herbicide has been officially recognised as a possible source of birth defects.

“It’s an amount that has the merit of existing, which is around €1,000 per month, paid from around March- April 2023 until March 2025, so for three years. And in March 2025, the Commission will re-examine Théo’s case to see whether the compensation should be extended or whether it is considered that his condition is no longer evolving,” Sabine explained.

A clear victory but one that does not erase years of suffering. 

“Théo has malformations in his oesophagus, trachea and larynx. It’s a polymalformative syndrome, so he has a series of malformations that required a lot of operations. He had a total of 54 operations,” said his mother.

Even today, because of a ruptured oesophagus, Théo, now aged 16, can only breathe with a tracheotomy, which is a hole made in his windpipe. Up to the age of six, he was fed through a tube.

Ahead of Friday’s vote, Sabine Grataloup is appealing to MEPs: “What I would like to say to them is to take their noses out of the figures, to take their noses out of the economic balance sheets and statistics, to tell themselves that behind the statistics there are real victims. If they take the decision to keep glyphosate on the European market, they are taking the decision that there will be these victims, they are responsible for this suffering and these future victims.”

What is glyphosate?

Glyphosate is a herbicide widely used around the world to eliminate weeds that invade agricultural crops and public spaces. It was introduced to the market in the 1970s by Monsanto under the trade name Roundup, although many other manufacturers also produce glyphosate-based formulations.

Its popularity is based on its undeniable effectiveness in controlling weeds, its ease of use and its relatively affordable cost. Its mode of action is to inhibit an enzyme that is crucial to plant growth, leading to elimination.

However, glyphosate is at the heart of controversy and debate due to growing concerns about its possible impact on human health and the environment. According to Gergely Simon, Senior Chemicals Officer at Pesticide Action Network (PAN Europe), an NGO dedicated to sustainable agricultural practices and the reduction of pesticide use in Europe, “Glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide in Europe and worldwide, and is essentially a herbicide. It’s used for a variety of applications such as pre-harvest use and desiccation, but it’s even used in national parks to combat invasive species, and we even know that quite a large quantity is used, for example, along railway lines for maintenance. But there are many other uses I could mention.”

According to the experts, this substance could easily be replaced. But Glyphosate EU, an organisation that brings together companies in favour of the pesticide, disagrees: “Many of the alternative approaches suggested for weed management require the reintroduction of mechanised farming practices. Apart from the negative impact this would have on the environment, the structural conditions of many crops do not allow the use of mechanical methods. For example, it is not possible to use machinery without destroying the crops,” the group told Euronews.

“In addition, no individual herbicide or combination of herbicides currently registered in Europe could offer the same benefits in terms of reduced tillage and the possibility of adopting cover crops, which are essential elements of conservation agriculture.”

The risks

Environmental groups have called EFSA’s assessment “shocking”.

“In our view, EFSA has downplayed the existing evidence from animal and epidemiological studies on the effects of glyphosate, which can cause DNA damage in certain organisms,” says Gergely Simon. “This indicates that glyphosate can cause cancer. We therefore believe that, in line with international guidelines from the US EPA, glyphosate should be classified as carcinogenic, which has already been done by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and also by France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm). They have all concluded that, based on the available evidence, there is a probable link between exposure to glyphosate and the development of cancer”.


EFSA, for its part, responded that “data gaps are mentioned” in their report, “either as questions that could not be completely answered or as open questions.”

The three questions that could not be finalised relate to the assessment of one of the impurities present in glyphosate, the dietary risk assessment for consumers and the risk assessment for aquatic plants. “Overall, the information available does not allow definitive conclusions to be drawn regarding this aspect of the risk assessment,” EFSA told Euronews.

Gergely Simon stresses that the risks should not be underestimated under any circumstances. “Numerous studies show that exposure to glyphosate can be linked to both autism in children and Parkinson’s disease. We therefore believe that the fact that EFSA has stated that there is no standardised protocol for drawing conclusions on the neurotoxicity of glyphosate should be a critical area of concern, which would mean that glyphosate could not be authorised as it currently is,” he emphasises

“In addition, there is a large body of alarming evidence about the destructive effects of glyphosate on the microbiome, as glyphosate is both a herbicide and an antibiotic. It is primarily used, for example, to alter the soil microbiome, but also the human gut microbiome. We know that there are many health risks associated with the destruction of the microbiome. Finally, EFSA has confirmed that glyphosate has the potential to cause endocrine disruption at doses considered safe in the European Union”, adds the PAN Europe representative.

“There are no internationally recognised guidelines for assessing the risks associated with the microbiome in the field of pesticides. Further research is needed”.


Glyphosate EU, the group of companies in favour of renewing the authorisation of glyphosate in Europe, says: “All allegations have been raised on several occasions and have been dealt with by the regulatory authorities, in Europe and throughout the world. This is yet another attempt by non-governmental organisations to discredit the most comprehensive scientific dossier presented in the application for renewal of EU approval for glyphosate, and to undermine confidence in the regulatory authorities in order to prevent the renewal of approval for glyphosate in the EU”.

Opposing countries

Germany has argued in favour of abandoning glyphosate in the European Union. In September 2023, at the end of a meeting between representatives of the 27 member states to discuss the European Commission’s proposal, the German agriculture minister warned of the threats to biodiversity and stressed the need for a coordinated phase-out of glyphosate at European level, while warning of uneven levels of protection within the EU.

In 2021, the German government announced its decision to withdraw glyphosate from the market by the end of 2023. The country is therefore expected to vote against renewing the authorisation of this herbicide within the EU at the vote scheduled for 13 October.

France, for its part, had also tried to adopt restrictive measures with regard to glyphosate. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron announced his commitment to completely ban glyphosate in France before 2021.

In early 2019, Macron buried his promise during the Grand Débat. “Can we say that there will be no more glyphosate in five years? It’s impossible. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not true. If I told you that, I’d be completely killing certain sectors”, he said. 


PAN Europe carried out a poll in which two-thirds of those questioned said they wanted a total ban on pesticides such as glyphosate. “We believe that the Commission’s proposal not only breaches EU law, but also ignores the legitimate concerns of European citizens. Only 14% of citizens expressed support for the use of glyphosate. Around two-thirds of those questioned said they wanted a total ban,” concludes Gergely Simon.

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Blueberries have joined green beans in this year’s Dirty Dozen list | CNN

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Blueberries, beloved by nutritionists for their anti-inflammatory properties, have joined fiber-rich green beans in this year’s Dirty Dozen of nonorganic produce with the most pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental health organization.

In the 2023 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, researchers analyzed testing data on 46,569 samples of 46 fruits and vegetables conducted by the US Department of Agriculture. Each year, a rotating list of produce is tested by USDA staffers who wash, peel or scrub fruits and vegetables as consumers would before the food is examined for 251 different pesticides.

As in 2022, strawberries and spinach continued to hold the top two spots on the Dirty Dozen, followed by three greens — kale, collard and mustard. Listed next were peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, grapes, bell and hot peppers, and cherries. Blueberries and green beans were 11th and 12th on the list.

A total of 210 pesticides were found on the 12 foods, the report said. Kale, collard and mustard greens contained the largest number of different pesticides — 103 types — followed by hot and bell peppers at 101.

Dirty Dozen 2023

2023 Dirty Dozen (most to least contaminated)

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Kale, collard and mustard greens
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Bell and hot peppers
  • Cherries
  • Blueberries
  • Green beans
  • “Some of the USDA’s tests show traces of pesticides long since banned by the Environmental Protection Agency. Much stricter federal regulation and oversight of these chemicals is needed,” the report said.

    “Pesticides are toxic by design,” said Jane Houlihan, former senior vice president of research for EWG. She was not involved in the report.

    “They are intended to harm living organisms, and this inherent toxicity has implications for children’s health, including potential risk for hormone dysfunction, cancer, and harm to the developing brain and nervous system,” said Houlihan, who is now research director for Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, an organization dedicated to reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.

    There is good news, though. Concerned consumers can consider choosing conventionally grown vegetables and fruits from the EWG’s Clean 15, a list of crops that tested lowest in pesticides, the report said. Nearly 65% of the foods on the list had no detectable levels of pesticide.

    2023 Clean 15

    2023 Clean 15 (least to most contaminated)

  • Avocados
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapple
  • Onions
  • Papaya
  • Frozen sweet peas
  • Asparagus
  • Honeydew melon
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Mushrooms
  • Mangoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Watermelon
  • Carrots
  • Avocados topped 2023’s list of least contaminated produce again this year, followed by sweet corn in second place. Pineapple, onions and papaya, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, mangoes, sweet potatoes, watermelon, and carrots made up the rest of the list.

    Being exposed to a variety of foods without pesticides is especially important during pregnancy and throughout childhood, experts say. Developing children need the combined nutrients but are also harder hit by contaminants such as pesticides.

    “Pesticide exposure during pregnancy may lead to an increased risk of birth defects, low birth weight, and fetal death,” the American Academy of Pediatrics noted. “Exposure in childhood has been linked to attention and learning problems, as well as cancer.”

    The AAP suggests parents and caregivers consult the shopper’s guide if they are concerned about their child’s exposure to pesticides.

    Houlihan, director of Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, agreed: “Every choice to reduce pesticides in the diet is a good choice for a child.”

    Nearly 90% of blueberry and green bean samples had concerning findings, the report said.

    In 2016, the last time green beans were inspected, samples contained 51 different pesticides, according to the report. The latest round of testing found 84 different pest killers, and 6% of samples tested positive for acephate, an insecticide banned from use in the vegetable in 2011 by the EPA.

    “One sample of non-organic green beans had acephate at a level 500 times greater than the limit set by the EPA,” said Alexis Temkin, a senior toxicologist at the EWG with expertise in toxic chemicals and pesticides.

    When last tested in 2014, blueberries contained over 50 different pesticides. Testing in 2020 and 2021 found 54 different pesticides — about the same amount. Two insecticides, phosmet and malathion, were found on nearly 10% of blueberry samples, though the levels decreased over the past decade.

    Acephate, phosmet and malathion are organophosphates, which interfere with the normal function of the nervous system, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    A high dose of these chemicals can cause difficulty breathing, nausea, a lower heart rate, vomiting, weakness, paralysis and seizures, the CDC said. If exposed over an extended time to smaller amounts, people may “feel tired or weak, irritable, depressed, or forgetful.”

    Why would levels of some pesticides be higher today than in the past?

    “We do see drops in some pesticides since the early ’90s when the Food Quality Protection Act was put into place,” Temkin said. “But we’re also seeing increases of other pesticides that have been substituted in their place which may not be any safer. That’s why there’s a push towards overall reduction in pesticide use.”

    Chris Novak, president and CEO of CropLife America, an industry association, told CNN the report “willfully misrepresented” the USDA data.

    “Farmers use pesticides to control insects and fungal diseases that threaten the healthfulness and safety of fruits and vegetables,” Novak said via email. “Misinformation about pesticides and various growing methods breeds hesitancy and confusion, resulting in many consumers opting to skip fresh produce altogether.”

    The Institute of Food Technologists, an industry association, told CNN that emphasis should be placed on meeting the legal limits of pesticides established by significant scientific consensus.

    “We all agree that the best-case scenario of pesticide residues would be as close to zero as possible and there should be continued science-based efforts to further reduce residual pesticides,” said Bryan Hitchcock, IFT’s chief science and technology officer.

    Many fruits and veggies with higher levels of pesticides are critical to a balanced diet, so don’t give them up, experts say. Instead, avoid most pesticides by choosing to eat organic versions of the most contaminated crops. While organic foods are not more nutritious, the majority have little to no pesticide residue, Temkin said.

    “If a person switches to an organic diet, the levels of pesticides in their urine rapidly decrease,” Temkin told CNN. “We see it time and time again.”

    If organic isn’t available or too pricey, “I would definitely recommend peeling and washing thoroughly with water,” Temkin said. “Steer away from detergents or other advertised items. Rinsing with water will reduce pesticide levels.”

    Additional tips on washing produce, provided by the US Food and Drug Administration, include:

    • Handwashing with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after preparing fresh produce.
    • Rinsing produce before peeling, so dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the knife onto the fruit or vegetable.
    • Using a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce like apples and melons.
    • Drying the produce with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present.

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