EU member states failed Monday to agree on the future use of the controversial weedkiller glyphosate in their bloc, less than a month before its authorization expires, amid uncertainty over whether the product may cause cancer.
Glyphosate, one of the world's most commonly used active ingredients in weedkillers, works by inhibiting the growth of unwanted plants. It is widely used in farming but also to control plants in domestic and urban settings.
Last year, the World Health Organization defined glyphosate as probably causing cancer, although a recent UN study reached different conclusions. The European Food Safety Authority, the European Union's industry watchdog, has not identified a risk of cancer.
An expert panel consisting of EU member state representatives failed Monday to reach a majority for or against renewing the glyphosate licence, which expires on June 30.
While many EU governments are thought to be in favour of a renewal, large member states such as Germany are sitting on the fence.
The coalition government in Berlin is divided on the issue, with Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats in favour of a renewal and their Social Democrat partners against it, due to health concerns.
Germany abstained in Monday's vote. Its outcome was "good," said Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, a Social Democrat politician.
"Many member states want to first see the question of cancer risks settled before glyphosate can continue to be used on our fields," Hendricks said in a statement. "I very much hope that we will now enter into a serious debate."
The failure to reach a majority was also welcomed by environmental groups, with Greenpeace representative Franziska Achterberg arguing that "extending the glyphosate licence would be like smelling gas and refusing to evacuate to check for a leak."
But the European Crop Protection Association, which represents agrochemical companies, called the move "hugely disappointing."
"Failure to re-approve glyphosate would have significant negative repercussions for the competitiveness of European agriculture, the environment, and the ability of farmers to produce safe and affordable food," it warned in a statement.
The issue will now be taken up by an EU appeal committee. If it also fails to agree, the decision on whether to renew the license would be left to the European Commission.
A spokesman for the EU's executive called Monday on the bloc's 28 governments to decide the matter.
"This is for the member states to take their responsibilities and it's not going to be possible to hide behind the commission," spokesman Alexander Winterstein told journalists in Brussels.
In an attempt to break the deadlock, the commission had proposed extending the current licence by 12 to 18 months, arguing that this would give the European Chemicals Agency time to issue its opinion on the weedkiller.
But the proposal failed to secure the necessary majority at Monday's expert meeting.
If no decision is taken on the licence's renewal by June 30 , products containing glyphosate will have to be removed from the European market.
Even with a glyphosate licence in place, each EU capital can still decide whether or not to authorize products containing it.