(CN) – A European Court of Justice magistrate said Tuesday that environmental activists facing charges in France of intentionally damaging containers of the herbicide Roundup can’t claim the EU’s approval process for agrochemicals is flawed as a defense of their criminal case.
Members of the group “Voluntary Reapers of GMOs” face charges of degrading or deteriorating the property of another, suspected of causing criminal damages to containers of herbicide containing the active ingredient glyphosate in three French towns.
During a criminal hearing, the suspects asked to have the European Court of Justice review the case. The French prosecutor did not oppose the request, as the charges could be dropped or sentences could be reduced if the EU high court finds products containing glyphosate pose risks to human health and the environment.
Specifically, the French court asked whether the EU’s plant-protection products law and the precautionary principle – preventative action to mitigate environmental damage at the source and at the expense of the polluter is top priority – bar the amount of discretion given to producers of products containing glyphosate during the approval process.
The French court also questioned whether producers should be allowed to base their applications only the active ingredient and conduct their own tests of their products, and whether the EU should demand more testing particularly as to the “cocktail effect” and long-term toxicity of glyphosate.
But Advocate General Eleanor Sharpston noted in her advisory opinion for the EU high court that the plant-protection products law is itself precautionary – and highly scientific and technically complex. Furthermore, EU institutions have wide discretion when it comes to adopting laws and can only be overruled when the laws are “manifestly inappropriate” or when the law contains errors that contradict the aim lawmakers wanted to achieve with the law.
In this case, the plant-protection products law has safety nets in place to restrict the products if the cocktail effect was found to be a problem for health or the environment, Sharpston noted.
“The system put in place by the regulation is sound and permits errors of assessment in individual cases to be caught and corrected,” she wrote.
As for allowing agrochemical companies to conduct their own testing during the approval process, the plant-products protection law makes clear the companies can only submit objective data, Sharpston said.
Should long-term toxicity be found to be a problem for human health or the environment, the law allows for restrictive measures while further testing is done, Sharpston said. But requiring full testing on long-term toxicity be done before a product can come to market would cause unfair delays for both producers and farmers, she said.
In a postscript, however, Sharpston noted a recent report by the European Parliament regarding the EU’s agrichemical approval process. In it, lawmakers found improvements are in order and issued several recommendations.
“The publication of that report is an excellent indication that the scrutiny and review procedures foreseen by the EU’s institutional arrangements are working as they should,” Sharpston wrote. “Nothing I have said in this opinion should be read as suggesting that it would be appropriate for the EU legislator to sit back complacently and pay no attention when issues are raised concerning potential risks to human and animal health and the environment from the use of advanced chemical preparations in agriculture.
“However, the fact that recommendations are made suggesting that an existing law could with advantage be improved does not necessarily mean that that existing law is so flawed that it should be struck down. Most laws are capable of improvement; and the plant-protection products regulation is probably no exception to that general rule. Having examined the regulation in detail in the light of the questions referred, I conclude that it is not vitiated by a manifest error and that, accordingly, no issue arises as to its validity.”
Sharpston’s opinion is not binding on the European Court of Justice, which has begun its deliberations in the case.