Skip to content
for a responsible, fair & sustainable food system

GM Maizes Threaten EU Water – Another reason to ban glyphosate

Immediate release (11 Jan 2012)

Calls to: Pete Riley 07903 341 065

Spanish researchers have confirmed that the weedkiller glyphosate applied to GM crops can leach into groundwater. [1] EU Member States are due to meet with the Commission this week to discuss approving two more controversial GM crops designed to use more of the chemical routinely. [2]

The meeting of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCFCAH) is scheduled to discuss authorising Syngenta’s GA21 maize (genetically modified to permit the crop to withstand being sprayed with glyphosate-based herbicides) and Monsanto’s 88017 maize (also tolerant to glyphosate, and containing a Bt toxin against the Western Corn Rootworm, a beetle larvae that attacks roots of maize plants).

Late last year Spanish researchers confirmed the presence of glyphosate in groundwater samples taken at 11 different locations in Catalonia during the spraying periods between 2007 and 2010. Highest average levels were found in sample from areas most at risk from intensive agriculture where glyphosate is applied. At one site the average concentration of glyphosate exceeded more than four times the limits of EU drinking water regulations, over a maximum level of pesticides in drinking water of 0.1μg/l. The average concentrations at all 11 sites breached this level at least once during the 4 year study, and over this period the annual average breached the threshold 21 times. The highest level from one sample was recorded in 2010 with more than twenty five times this level recorded.

This is the first time that glyphosate presence has been confirmed in EU groundwater. Previously Monsanto (who first manufactured glyphosate) has said the herbicide does has “low potential” to leach into groundwater. [3] Confirmation that glyphosate can wash off farmland into rivers and lakes came in research by the US Geological Survey published in 2011. [4]

Syngenta applied for approval to grow GA21 maize in the EU in 2008, and the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) issued a favourable scientific opinion in December 2011. EFSA’s November 2011 opinion on maize 88107 was also favourable toward Monsanto’s 2008 cultivation application.

Despite the fact that no glyphosate tolerant crops are approved in the EU, five weed species have developed resistance to the herbicide in Spain alone due to its overuse in controlling weeds in orchards. [5] In the US weeds with resistance to glyphosate are a major cause of concern in GM cotton, maize and soya, and scientific concerns about its impact on health, wildlife, the soil and crop diseases are growing. [6]

GM Freeze challenged EFSA’s December 2011 opinion on 88017 maize in a published critique, calling the conclusions into question and casting doubt as to whether mitigation measure to slow the breakdown of insect resistance and herbicide tolerance are effective. It highlights the problems of weed resistance, damage to soil microorganisms and increased plant diseases associated with glyphosate use on GM crops and other applications of this broad spectrum weedkiller. [7] Glyphosate’s ability to kill all weed down to the root tip also threatens farmland wildlife by removing food and cover for insects and birds.

Commenting Pete Riley, Campaign Director of GM Freeze, said:

The results from Spain show that glyphosate does leach from farmland into groundwater and that the widespread adoption of glyphosate tolerant crops represents a major threat to the protection of the EU’s drinking water.

Both of the applications currently under consideration should be rejected on these grounds alone.

Experience in the US suggests weeds in maize fields quickly develop resistance to glyphosate. This pattern would surely follow in the EU if these crops are approved.

The EU needs to take stock of this new information and reject herbicide tolerant crops. Investment should be directed toward non-chemical and non-GM weed control methods used in agroecological farming systems.



[1] Sanchis J, et al, 2011. “Determination of glyphosate in groundwater samples using an ultrasensitive immunoassay and confirmation by on-line solid-phase extraction followed by liquid chromatography coupled to tandem mass spectrometry“. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry (ref DOI 10.1007/s00216-011-5541-y)

[2] Meeting of the standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, 12 January 2012.

[3] Monsanto, 2003. “Backgrounder. Glyphosate and water quality

[4] GM Freeze press release, 31 August 2011. “It’s Official: Glyphosate used on GM crops found in US rivers, rainfall

[5] Five weeds are already resistant to glyphosate in Spain – Rigid and Italian Ryegrass, Sumatran and Hairy Fleabane and Horseweed. Resistance to glyphosate has also been confirmed in France, Italy, Czech Republic, Portugal and Greece. Source: International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds

[6] GM Freeze and Greenpeace International, 2011. Herbicide Tolerance and GM Crops – Why the world should be ready to round up glyphosate

[7] GM Freeze, 2011. Papering Over the Cracks EFSA’s opinion on cultivating GM MON88017 maize in Europe – Mitigation is not enough.