Pesticides and herbicides are regularly the subject of controversy, but environmentalists warn that what lurks in fertilisers is just as dangerous.

As EU governments gear up to decide on whether to renew the licence for glyphosate – the controversial weedkiller from agrochemical company Monsanto – political debate on the future of cadmium, a hazardous carcinogen, this time found in many fertilisers is also gaining momentum.

Later this month the European Parliament will vote on whether to limit the amount of cadmium allowed in mineral fertilisers at EU level from 60mg/kg to 40mg/kg after three years and to 20mg/kg after 12 years.

Cadmium occurs naturally in phosphate rock – the main component of mineral fertilisers. When cadmium enters the soil, it accumulates, spreads into surrounding waterways, and is taken up by the crops used to grow both food and animal feed.

Cadmium is classed as a class 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization and exposure can also lead to pulmonary disorders, kidney damage and dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, fertility problems, and osteoporosis.

EEB Policy Manager for Agriculture and Bioenergy, Faustine Bas-Defossez, said:

Behind greenwashing attempts such as ‘plant protection’ and ‘plant nutrition’ lurks a toxic truth. Just like the herbicide glyphosate, cadmium in fertilisers has also been linked to negative impacts on human health. Regulating levels of this hazardous metal should be a no-brainer and it must go hand in hand with building a more sustainable food and farming system that benefits all.”

Glyphosate too was assessed as “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization in March 2015. Just 8 months later, two of the EU’s own agencies – the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) – threw the World Health Organization’s assessment into doubt by publishing research that reached the opposite conclusion, that glyphosate in food products is not harmful to human health. A hearing takes place in the European Parliament today that will pick apart the science used in the EFSA and the ECHA research, amid accusations that Monsanto held back crucial data on the herbicide’s health impacts.

On 1 September the French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot said that France would support a full ban on glyphosate.

France’s position on cadmium however is less clear. In France alone, an average of 910,000 adults exceed the World Health Organization’s tolerable cadmium limit of 25mg per kilogram of body weight.

The impact of any changes to EU fertiliser rules will also be closely watched by major fertiliser-producing countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Togo where phosphate rock has naturally high levels of cadmium.