A rebellion by several EU countries could scupper plans by the European commission to approve the relicensing of a weedkiller linked to cancer by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The vote to relicense glyphosate, a key ingredient in herbicides such as Monsanto’s multibillion-dollar brand Roundup, had been scheduled at a two-day meeting of experts from the EU’s 28 member states, which begins on Monday.
But officials are now saying that they may postpone the vote rather than lose it, raising the prospect of a legal limbo for glyphosate, the licence for which runs out in June.
France, the Netherlands and Sweden have all said they will not support an assessment by the European food safety authority (Efsa) that glyphosate is harmless.
That ruling ran counter to findings by the WHO’s cancer agency that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”, causing a bitter row over scientific methodology and industry influence.
The Swedish environment minister, Åsa Romson, said: “We won’t take risks with glyphosate and we don’t think that the analysis done so far is good enough. We will propose that no decision is taken until further analysis has been done and the Efsa scientists have been more transparent about their considerations.”
An Efsa panel based its recommendation that glyphosate was safe enough for a new lease of life on six industry-funded studies that have not been fully published.
Glyphosate use has been banned or restricted in large parts of Europe because of alleged links to a host of health problems, ranging from birth defects and kidney failure to coeliac disease, colitis and autism.
Romson said: “We are raising concerns because our citizens are raising concerns. They want to feel safe and secure with food and production in our society.”
Public pressure over the pesticide has been intense, with nearly 1.5 million people petitioning the EU’s health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, for a ban on the substance.
But splits between national environment and agriculture ministries across Europehave left diplomats holding their glyphosate voting cards close to their chests, with decisive meetings lined up for later this weekend.
Germany, Denmark and Italy have yet to clarify their positions on the proposal that the chemical be given a new 15-year licence.
On Friday morning, France’s environment minister, Ségolène Royal, signalled that France would oppose the move. “We need the commission to align the most protective position for health, which is the WHO position,” she said. “We will say no.”
Commission officials told the Guardian that a vote would not go ahead if support for relicensing continued to erode.
“If we see that many states want to think it over or there is a growing [opposition], if there is not a qualified majority, I doubt that it will be put to a vote,” one official said. “The ball is in the member states’ court.”
After a Dutch parliament vote opposing the renewal of glyphosate’s permit, the Netherlands called for a postponement of the EU-wide decision. “If there is no possibility to postpone the vote, then we will vote against the proposal,” said Marcel van Beusekom, a spokesman for the Netherlands agriculture ministry.
Although the licence for glyphosate will run out at the end of June, there could still be time to avoid the issue falling into legal limbo if the vote does not back relicensing. The commission could appeal against the decision or bring forward another proposal, EU sources said.