Danes debate safety of Round Up herbicide

Italian study suggesting carcinogenicity prompts questions about widely used pesticide

A debate is under way in Denmark about the health risks of one of the most widely used herbicides in Europe - Round Up - sold by US firm Monsanto, which contains the active ingredient glyphosate.

The debate was prompted by reports in the Danish press of research at Italy's National Institute for Cancer Research, which found that an "unknown compound" in the formulation of Round Up - not glyphosate itself - caused gene damage in mice, indicating that it could be a carcinogen. Around 86% of Round Up is made of so-called "inert" chemicals that support the action of glyphosate.

Newspapers have also been asking why Denmark has less strict rules on the use of glyphosate than neighbouring Sweden, where the national chemicals inspectorate has ruled that it should not be used within 10-14 days of crops being harvested because otherwise it left unacceptably high residues in food that were a "danger for human consumption."

Mounting public concern has led to a number of leading bread manufacturers in Denmark refusing to buy flour made from grain treated with Round Up close to harvesting. After a meeting on Friday between bread producers and the national farmers' union, a working group has been set up to devise a system allowing farmers - on a voluntary basis - to provide grain that is guaranteed not to have been treated with Round Up right up to harvest.

Tomorrow, environment minister Svend Auken is due to answer questions put to him by the Danish parliament's environment and planning committee, including why Denmark has not followed Sweden's rules on the use of glyphosate. According to a spokesperson for the committee, it also wants to "open debate" on the Italian findings, which are currently being reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The committee's concerns are fuelled by the recent growth in Round Up use, partly due to restrictions on the use of other pesticides. "If you refer to Round Up as the best thing [to use], you have an obligation to research it completely as its use will go up," said the spokesperson. Some 554 tons of the chemical were used in Denmark last year.

Use of Round Up is also likely to go up with the advent of herbicide-tolerant genetically engineered crops that are designed to be used with the product.

A spokesperson for Monsanto insisted that "there is absolutely no risk from using Round Up at any time". He described the Italian study as "misleading" and he emphasised that the active ingredient, glyphosate, was not implicated. Describing the pesticide as one of the safest and most environmentally friendly available, he said he was confident farmers would not stop using it.

Follow Up:
Danish environment ministry, tel: +45 33 927 600; Danish parliament, tel: +45 33 37 55 00; Monsanto, tel: +32 2 776 4111; Danish Farmers' Union, tel: +45 33 12 75 61.

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