(CN) — In a victory for environmentalists, Europe’s top court on Thursday ordered a European Union agricultural agency to release scientific studies it relied on to determine that glyphosate-based herbicides made popular by Monsanto, such as Roundup, are safe.
The European Court of Justice ruled that releasing the studies is in the public interest. The decision comes in the midst of a global legal, political and scientific fight over the use of glyphosate-based herbicides, most famously in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer, the world’s most commonly used weed killer.
It is considered both toxic and vital for farmers. About 40 percent of German crops, for instance, are sprayed with such herbicides, according to Deutsche Welle, a German news agency.
The European Food Safety Authority argued that releasing the studies would harm the commercial interests of herbicide makers and that it had released enough information to allow others to independently evaluate their findings.
Four members with the Green Party in the European Parliament and a toxicologist who works for environmental groups sought the release of studies.
Glyphosate is a chemical product and the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup. Roundup has been on the market since 1974, but in recent years its use has been linked to cancer in humans and widespread destruction of plant and insect life.
Critics say Monsanto has withheld information about the toxicity of the herbicide. In Europe, the European Food Safety Authority was accused of largely copying and pasting industry studies in assessing the safety of glyphosates.
“The judges have made clear that secrecy to protect commercial interests is not justified,” Heidi Hautala, a Green member and plaintiff in one of the cases, said in a statement.
Hautala said the ruling will allow independent scientists to review the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) decisions and take a look at studies that should have been released years ago.
“These studies have not been subject to normal scientific peer review before, because they have been completely unavailable to the scientific community,” she said.
Hautala said she trusted EFSA officials were not unduly influenced by Monsanto and other companies, saying the agency had to “weigh between different interests such as public access to documents and companies’ commercial interests.” She said “clearer legal rules provided in this judgment also help EFSA in its activities.”
Monsanto, which was bought recently by German giant Bayer, was involved in the legal proceedings. Bayer spokesman Utz Klages said the company has begun making scientific data that regulators use available to the public. He said this “builds trust and fosters an open, science-based dialogue about our products.” He added that glyphosate-based herbicides have been “used safely and successfully for over four decades worldwide.”
EFSA did not respond to a request for comment. It may appeal the ruling by a panel of three judges to a higher chamber of the same court, the European Court of Justice.
This legal fight stems in part from a 2015 study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer at the World Health Organization. That study found that glyphosates likely can cause cancer in humans.
After that study, the EFSA, the food safety agency, performed a new review of the dangers posed by glyphosate-based pesticides and issued a clean bill of health for the chemicals, saying they were unlikely to cause cancer.
The EFSA said it based its conclusions on unpublished studies performed by herbicide makers to which the World Health Organization did not have access. They said those studies proved glyphosate was safe.
The plaintiffs then asked EFSA to make those studies public in order for them to be verified independently. They cited European laws allowing access to information on environmental matters.
In October 2016, EFSA partially rejected that request and denied access to critical parts of the studies deemed commercially sensitive or confidential.
The agency said there was “no overriding public interest in disclosure of the requested studies,” according to the ruling. The agency said it fulfilled its obligations by providing reasons for its assessment and disclosing raw data and findings from the unpublished industry studies.
The Parliament members then took the matter to the European Court of Justice.
In the meantime, despite the objections of several European nations, European authorities in December 2017 approved the continued use of glyphosate-based herbicides for another five years, until 2022.
Bart Staes, a Green member and one of the plaintiffs, called the ruling “a victory in the fight against secrecy.”
“From now on, the public and independent scientists will be able to see how chemical giants write their own reports on the safety of their products for authorization,” he said in a statement.
He said the ruling will make sure that independent scientists can “double-check the science behind the assessments of pesticides.”
The court, based in Luxembourg, said the plaintiffs had shown that they should get access to the studies and that there was no proof that commercial harm would result from releasing them. The court said it was in the public interest to be able to verify the agency’s findings.
Thursday’s ruling allows the plaintiffs access to 12 critical studies performed on rats and mice to see if there were long-term cancer risks.
The court called EFSA’s reading of the laws barring public access as unjustified and a “narrow interpretation.”
The court dismissed the agency’s contention that releasing the studies “would jeopardize the balance which the EU legislature intended to maintain between the objective of transparency and the protection” of commercial interests.
The court said European law seeks more openness in decision-making in the EU in order to raise “public awareness and support for the decisions taken.” It said this was particularly the case in environmental matters.
The court said “the public must have access” to information about “the medium to long-term consequences” of the chemicals on the environment and on humans.
The court rejected the agency’s argument that the studies were irrelevant because they were laboratory tests “not comparable to the range of exposure of humans and the environment.”
“What matters is not the conditions in which the requested studies were carried out, but their purpose, which is to determine the carcinogenic effects of exposing humans to glyphosate and therefore to determine the toxicity of glyphosate under the most unfavorable realistic conditions which could possibly occur,” the court said.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)