The environmental lobby group, Pesticide Action Network (PAN), has published a new report in which it claims that 90% of EU-instigated pesticide authorization tests are designed – or recommended – by the pesticides industry.
Despite the EU having some of the most tightly controlled pesticide regulations in the world, PAN is alleging that potentially harmful substances are being quietly approved for use, thanks to lax testing by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The group says that out of twelve risk-assessment tests used by EFSA, only one provides an opportunity for effective public scrutiny, claiming the others lacked the stringency that is essential for a robust independent assessment.
The conclusions reached in the PAN report may appear alarming on first sight, but a closer look at the evidence shows that campaign is skewing the facts in an attempt to distort EU policy and decision-making. Unfortunately for the credibility of EU institutions, this is a tactic that seems to be paying dividends.
Supporting transparent testing
PAN says inadequate testing procedures raise questions about the EU’s regulation of pesticides. Meanwhile, EFSA has countered by arguing that just because a certain type of test is supported by the pesticides industry, it doesn’t automatically follow that it must necessarily be an inadequate assessment. In fact, EFSA’s testing methods are also employed by other major groups including the World Health Organization (WHO), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). Like EFSA, ECHA also gave a clean bill of health to glyphosate in March 2017, a decision that was based on “extensive evaluation of all the information that was available for this substance” and was backed up by public evaluations by comparable agencies in the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
It’s key to note that their evaluation methods stand in stark contrast with those used by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which evaluated glyphosate as carcinogenic in 2015 and has been subject to criticism for employing methodology that lacks transparency and accountability. For one thing, IARC’s “expert working groups” often review their own research or those of close colleagues, raising questions about objectivity. For another, IARC prohibits the consideration of unpublished data in its reviews, which means that key data is often not taken into account.
Nevertheless, the European Parliament has moved to recommend the creation of a new committee – PEST – to investigate the influence of crop-protection companies on pesticide regulation. The European Parliament believes that greater transparency throughout the authorization process will help allay suspicions of commercial interference in a sensitive policy area and has also launched a consultation to explore options for making the exercise more public. But is this new committee really necessary?
The glyphosate factor
The motivation for PAN’s report, and for the establishment of PEST, stems from the recent controversy over glyphosate, which in November last year received a five-year renewal of its EU marketing authorization. However, even that decision disputes about impartiality, going back to a 2016 finding of IARC which classified glyphosate as a “probable” carcinogenic to human. Multiple studies and regulatory agencies – including the EPA, EFSA, ECHA, the Canadian PMRA, the Australian APVMA or the German BfR – have since rebutted IARC.
The IARC study came under close scrutiny after Reuters claimed that an early draft of the assessment had undergone ‘significant changes and deletions’ before its final release format. Changes included the removal of the conclusions of a number of scientists that failed to establish a link between glyphosate and cancer in laboratory animals. A total of ten changes in the glyphosate assessment were highlighted by Reuters and the House Science Committee has since started to investigate whether the US should continue funding IARC in the wake of these controversial findings.
Twisting the facts to suit the argument
Even so, many activists and NGOs continued to object to the proposal to extend glyphosate’s EU licence. After a heated debate, 18 countries approved the use of glyphosate for another five years, with nine countries voting against. PAN accused governments of protecting pesticides manufacturers at the expense of the health of their citizens and, together with environmental group Global 2000, proceeded to register legal complaints against Germany and the EU.
Although their arguments are not backed by scientific evidence, PAN and its supporters have enjoyed some political successes. In addition to the announcement of the new PEST committee, member states including France and Germany are moving towards a consensus to ban glyphosate when the licence expires in 2022. French President Emmanuel Macron has already announced that glyphosate use will be outlawed in three years’ time – earlier even than the EU-agreed five-year renewal term.
Moving towards a more credible approach
MEPs are hoping that PEST‘s cross-party members will move to provide a more transparent process for authorizing the use of herbicides in the EU with a view to avoiding the politicization of health issues that has been a feature of the punishing glyphosate tug-of-war. The new committee will be required to assess the quality of the authorization procedure, as well as its independence from external lobbying by those with vested interests.
PAN and its allies frame their efforts as part of a campaign to try to improve Europe’s decision-making processes, but unless there is real scientific support for their arguments, this level of pressure only serves to make existing processes even less credible.
It’s a chaotic and potentially damaging approach to policy making. Activists are leveraging public mistrust of pesticides, which, together with the EU’s onus to prove that a product is safe (rather than unsafe), can lead to fear-based decisions, rather than evidence-based ones. The EU must back its own scientific findings to help restore public trust, while national governments should square up to the challenge of making difficult decisions instead of passing the buck – and the blame – to Brussels.