Environment Minister José Herrera has admitted that an outright ban on the controversial weedkiller glyphosate, which he announced last July before backtracking this month, was never on the cards.

“I take some fault for not communicating the government’s position clearly,” Dr Herrera told the Times of Malta. “Perhaps euphorically, I stressed that Malta would fight against the use of glyphosate – as a precaution – in front of EU institutions.

“That is what my delegates did, as we wished for it to be banned [by the EU]. But when you are in a political bloc, there are rules that have to be adhered to. You cannot act as a lone cowboy and ignore the EU position,” he said.

Dr Herrera told this newspaper last July the government was in the process of implementing a ban on glyphosate, which is considered a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organisation cancer agency.

But this month, the ministry said only products containing both the active substance glyphosate and the co-formulant POE-tallowamine, which exacerbates the effects of glyphosate, were being banned.

This includes some of the most commonly used commercial pesticides, including Roundup and Roundup Max, but leaves the door open to pesticides that contain glyphosate only.

Dr Herrera said yesterday the government would continue to oppose glyphosate in EU discussions but could not implement a unilateral ban due to European single market rules.

You cannot act as a lone cowboy and ignore the EU position

He stressed that Malta had been the only country to vote against the re-approval of glyphosate in June, when the EU voted for a one-year extension of the licence to allow its own chemical agency to reach a conclusive decision on its safety.“I was the only minister to take a stand against glyphosate at EU level,” he said. “I did my part. I sent a very strong message that Malta would like to see it banned as a precaution.”

While pledging to monitor all discussions closely and promote Malta’s position, he reiterated that he would only ban glyphosate if it were first prohibited at EU level.

“I’m not saying we’re not going to ban it,” the minister said. “We’re going to wait for the advice of the chemical agency, which should come out before the end of the year.”

The use of the co-formulant has already been banned at EU level and Malta’s implementation of the ban has been derided as “window-dressing” by environmental organisations.

Dr Herrera’s insistence that Malta cannot unilaterally ban glyphosate has been contradicted by prominent environmentalists, who stress it is member states – and not the EU – that authorise pesticides to be placed on the market.

The European Commission website says: “Once an active substance is approved at EU level, the safety evaluation of every pesticide formulation is done at a later stage by individual member states before they grant, refuse or restrict the use of pesticides formulations at national level.”

The safety of glyphosate in normal environmental conditions has been hotly disputed over the last few years, with a report by the European Food and Safety Agency in 2015 concluding that the chemical was “unlikely” to cause cancer.

A study released this month was the first to show a causal link between glyphosate consumption at a real-world environmental dose and a serious condition, with findings showing that the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup caused liver disease in rats.

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