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HELSINKI (Reuters) - Glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto Co's Roundup herbicide, should not be classified as a substance causing cancer, the European Chemical Agency concluded on Wednesday, potentially paving the way for its license renewal in the EU.
A transatlantic row over possible risks to human health has prompted investigations by congressional committees in the United States, and in Europe has forced a delay to a re-licensing decision for Monsanto's big-selling Roundup weed killer.
Weighing in on the controversy, the EU body which regulates chemicals and biocides said it had considered extensive scientific data.
"This conclusion was based both on the human evidence and the weight of the evidence of all the animal studies reviewed," Tim Bowmer, chairman of ECHA's Committee for Risk Assessment, said in an online briefing.
The European Commission said it expected to restart talks with member states on re-approving the use of glyphosate in herbicides after receiving the formal opinion from ECHA, which is expected by August.
A decision would be taken within six months after that or by the end of 2017 at "at the latest", a Commission spokesman said.
Pending the results of the study, the EU granted an 18-month extension last July of its approval for the weed killer after a proposal for full license renewal met opposition from member states and campaign groups.
Accusing EU nations of hiding behind Brussels and failing to take an open stance on controversial issues such as glyphosate and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the Commission also proposed changes to its decision-making process.
"It's up to the Commission now," said Jack de Bruijn, ECHA's Director of Risk Management. "We are confident that indeed we have no issue at all in terms of the transparency and independence of this opinion."
While the WHO’s cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), classifies glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic", many other government regulators, including the United States, see the weed killer as unlikely to pose a cancer risk to humans.
The European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA), which has found that glyphosate is "unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans", welcomed ECHA's opinion on Wednesday, as did lobby groups for farmers, who make wide use of products containing glyphosate.
But Greenpeace's Franziska Achterberg said in a statement: "The data vastly exceeds what's legally necessary for the EU to ban glyphosate, but ECHA has looked the other way."
According to data published by IARC, glyphosate was registered in over 130 countries as of 2010 and is one of the world's most heavily used weed killers.
Analysts have estimated that Monsanto could lose out on up to $100 million of sales if glyphosate were banned in Europe.
Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London and Alissa de Carbonnel in Brussels; Editing by Tom Heneghan/Ruth Pitchford