French President Emmanuel Macron is making a high-stakes political gamble by promising to vote against an EU-wide license for the world’s most commonly used weedkiller: glyphosate.
Glyphosate is one of the EU’s most toxic political issues, particularly in the Continent’s Franco-German heartlands. Farmers see the herbicide as vital to preserve bumper harvests of crops ranging from barley to carrots, but there is also an intense public debate over whether it causes cancer.
That debate over whether it is safe to use is set to move toward endgame when representatives of the 28 EU member countries meet in Brussels on October 5 and 6 to discuss if they should renew its license for another 10 years.
On September 22, France dropped a bombshell and confirmed it would vote against a 10-year renewal of the herbicide. That 11th-hour non from Europe’s farming powerhouse raises the prospect of a doomsday scenario for farmers: that the whole EU could have to stop buying new batches of glyphosate from January 1.
At first glance, France’s decision would appear foolhardy. Politically, Macron is putting himself on a collision course with farmers, one of the rowdiest constituencies in the country, who protested the government’s stance on glyphosate on September 22 by blocking the Champs Elysées with tractors and bales of hay.
“They are going to pat themselves on the back for voting against a 10-year renewal, then abstain when a 7-year renewal comes up” — Green MEP Yannick Jadot
To France’s world-class cereals sector, the threat is existential. France is easily the EU’s leading producer of wheat, corn and barley, upon which some 450,000 jobs depend. Astonishingly for a country of its size, it is the world’s fifth-biggest wheat producer and competes with giants such as the U.S., Russia and Ukraine on global markets.
Arvalis, an agricultural research institute, estimated this summer that a full glyphosate ban could cost the sector some €976 million a year. For the farmers, the ban just doesn’t make sense. “We’re not ready to all go organic tomorrow,” said Véronique Le Floc’h, secretary-general of France’s second-largest farmers’ union Coordination Rurale.
Smoke and mirrors
In truth, French politicians and analysts do not believe Macron really wants to force the country to “go organic tomorrow.” Two out of three French farmers use glyphosate, according to an industry-funded study conducted by pollster Ipsos, and seen by POLITICO. A massive 85 percent of large farms rely on the chemical, the same study said, with its removal forecast to cut profits in the cereals sector by a third.
Instead, Macron wants to ride on the popularity of his Ecology Minister Nicolas Hulot, a former presenter of nature documentaries, who has a highly valuable green-minded support base. Opposing a product so closely associated with U.S. agrichemical giant Monsanto is fundamental to Hulot, and his constituency. His environmental organization in April urged people to fight industrial lobbies and “mobilize against glyphosate.”
Glyphosate is one of the EU’s most toxic political issues | Philippe Huguen/AFP via Getty Images
The government needs Hulot and his followers onside. A poll in June placed Hulot as the most popular politician in the country.
Most doubted Macron’s intentions when he positioned himself against glyphosate, and staunch ecologists quickly cried foul.
“They are going to pat themselves on the back for voting against a 10-year renewal, then abstain when a seven-year renewal comes up,” said Green MEP Yannick Jadot. “It’s smoke and mirrors … People think that Nicolas Hulot is some sort of magical figure making France more ecological. But he’s not winning on many fronts. This government loves to communicate on ecological issues, but the action is favoring the farmers.”
Indeed, the French government is already starting to map out the shape of a potential compromise. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s office said the government would endeavour to find a “reasonable transition toward phasing out glyphosate.” Macron himself has stressed the importance of using such time to find alternative herbicides.
In the clearest indication that Paris is not seeking disruption, Agriculture Minister Stéphane Travert said in an interview with the broadcaster RTL that France would support prolonging glyphosate’s license by “five to seven years” to allow time to find an alternative.
As Jadot notes, France’s vote is not necessarily decisive.
Curiously, France could count on being outvoted by countries such as the U.K., Spain or Poland, particularly if the final vote were for a phase-out rather than a ban.
While the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded glyphosate was a probable carcinogen in 2015, many governments take their guidance from the European Food Safety Authority and European Chemicals Agency, which have ruled that it is safe.
Looking for alternatives
Emmanuel Aze, a spokesman for the French farmers’ union Confédération Paysanne, said he had “zero trust” that the government would see through a ban, namely because the cereals sector is too important to cast aside.
But Eric Alauzet, the sole Green MP in French Parliament (others have taken on the colors of Macron’s centrist La République en Marche party) disagreed.
French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Travert | Pascal Pavani/AFP via Getty Images
Macron, he said, was preparing the ground for a ban on glyphosate that would be self-evident in a few years’ time in light of new studies, just as asbestos and other noxious substances were banned after a lengthy period of evaluation.
“The idea is not to aggravate the farmers or go against them out of principle,” he said. “It’s to help them prepare for the next phase in agriculture, when studies will confirm the ill effects of glyphosate and force them to find different products anyway … The government is just trying to be forward-looking.”
That is exactly the prospect that farmers fear. Le Floc’h admitted it could be possible to find alternatives eventually, but pointed out that researchers could take years to find one as effective. “If you get rid of something, you have to come forward with an alternative,” she said.
Grégory Besson-Moreau, a parliamentarian from a rural wine-producing constituency who supports phasing out glyphosate, also underlined the paramount importance of finding a glyphosate replacement. “If we don’t find one, this will be a carnage for farming,” he said.
“It means less revenue, more costs. We see suicides here and there” — Véronique Le Floc’h, secretary-general of French farmers’ union Coordination Rurale
Hulot, meanwhile, is pushing the president to be as ambitious as possible, though without any hard and fast “contract” on principles to respect. “He’s trying to go as far as possible,” said Alauzet of Hulot. “If in three or six months he finds it hard to advance, that would mean leaving the government.”
However, he said ecologists were better off staying inside government than leaving it, as the Greens did in 2014, leaving former President François Hollande’s cabinet in a spat over nuclear power.
Alauzet noted that environmentally-conscious voters, who he estimated at up to 15 percent of the electorate, were important to Macron, and the president knew he had to keep them sweet.
“He knows what he owes to ecological voters. If you look at Macron’s action in the carbon tax, making France the first big European country to adopt such ambitious standards, it’s clear that he knows this must remain a priority.”
For Le Floc’h, a ban means France will slip from cereals powerhouse to second-rate power. She said the economic impact is clear. “It means less revenue, more costs,” she said. “We see suicides here and there.”