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#EFSA and #ECHA get a tough lesson on the law of the news cycle

| October 20, 2017 | 0 Comments

It’s safe to say the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) aren’t used to making international headlines. But lately, the EU’s ongoing debate over whether to renew the license for glyphosate, the active ingredient in the world’s most commonly used herbicide, has put them in an uncomfortable spotlight. The controversy over the proposed renewal, which came to a head earlier this month when the European Parliament held a hearing on the matter, offers a fascinating look into how activist pressure and distorted media coverage have upended what would have normally been a relatively dry regulatory procedure.

The European Commission has proposed a 10-year extension for glyphosate. However, this will only go through if backed by a majority of member states – whose support is still unclear. France and Italy have indicated they will oppose relicensing, while Germany remains undecided.

Glyphosate still has wide support among farmers, who have been treating their fields with it for decades, and with a number of European governments. Nevertheless, public sentiment against glyphosate and its main producer, Monsanto, has been on the rise, largely due to the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) evaluation of glyphosate as probably carcinogenic in 2015. This, despite the fact that both ECHA and EFSA – along with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and other regulatory bodies – have pronounced glyphosate as safe.

The intense focus on IARC’s outlying decision prompted EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis to say recently that member states should stop hiding behind or even blaming the Commission when it comes to the reauthorization of glyphosate. He argued it was “strange” that certain people argue against glyphosate by myopically focusing on IARC’s findings, with some falsely claiming that the EU did not take into account the agency’s evaluation.

Unfortunately, it did not help his case that last month, EFSA became the subject of a media firestorm over allegations that they had copied and pasted text from a Monsanto study into their recommendation that glyphosate was safe for public use. Anti-herbicide activists, Green MEPs, and press coverage portrayed this revelation as a sure sign of corporate meddling in European policymaking.

Nevertheless, EFSA and ECHA representatives had the chance at the EP’s hearing to explain why this outcry is misplaced.

Dr. José Tarazona, head of the pesticides unit at EFSA, explained that the agency had at its disposal not only studies from Monsanto, but also those from 24 different companies. He noted that experts from EFSA, independent public bodies, and member states who were involved in the review also had access to the raw data, which allowed them to return to the original studies and check them for accuracy. Their assessment, he said, was based on a “comprehensive body of evidence,” including 1,500 studies – many of which, including Monsanto’s, were eventually cited in the final report.

Meanwhile, Tim Bowmer, Chairman of the ECHA Committee for Risk Assessment, underscored that the science on glyphosate “has been consistent and very conclusive.” Both EFSA and ECHA, he stated, had properly followed the rules on how they evaluate, prepare dossiers, and come to their conclusions when evaluating substances – and both had come to the same conclusion: that glyphosate is safe to use.

Their explanations highlighted the gulf between the methodologies used by EFSA, ECHA – and IARC. The latter agency does not perform any of its own research, but only considers studies published in peer-reviewed journals when making its evaluations. Recently, this methodology became the subject of severe criticism when it was revealed that IARC had discarded the largest and most comprehensive US-government funded study on glyphosate to date, which had found no evidence that the herbicide causes cancer. IARC also raises eyebrows among the scientific community for its focus on hazard, not risk – in other words, the question of whether a substance can theoretically cause harm, not the actual chance that it will.

Despite the arguments put forward by EFSA and ECHA at the hearing, and despite the history of scrutiny of IARC, the European Parliament remains far from a friendly audience for those who defend glyphosate. Green MEPs in particular have repeatedly used the parliament as a platform to decry glyphosate to the delight of their anti-herbicide constituents. Last year, for instance, 48 MEPs from 13 EU countries volunteered to take a urine test to see if glyphosate was in their system, in a publicity stunt before the release of a parliamentary resolution opposing the Commission’s plans to relicense the herbicide. Their perspective on glyphosate – in spite of the scientific evidence – helps explain the imbalance among the witnesses called to the hearing, where the number of anti-glyphosate activists far outnumbered the number of EU regulatory experts.

The fact that major member states are buying into a narrative that goes against the weight of the evidence, and puts the reauthorization of glyphosate in the EU at risk, will have serious implications for the continent’s agriculture sector. It also threatens the very credibility of food and chemical safety regulators in Europe and far beyond. For the EU, the fact that anti-herbicide activists might tip what should be a decision based on science is cause for alarm.

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Category: A Frontpage, Agriculture, Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Environment, EU, EU, EU product safety rules, Health, Honeybees, Pesticides, Pollution, Toxics

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