The debate on the toxicity of pesticides and the role of big multinationals in agriculture is a legitimate one to have, says Bernhard Url, the head of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). But it goes beyond the realm of science, he told EurActiv in an interview, calling on politicians to assume their responsibilities and make their own decisions.
Debates on food safety have taken huge proportions in Europe, where public opposition to pesticides and GMOs is widespread.
Glyphosate, the active substance in Monsanto’s best-selling herbicide Roundup, is a case in point where the initial debate on the substance’s carcinogenic properties and risk for humans has moved beyond the scientific realm to become a societal discussion with wider ramifications, Url said.
“With glyphosate we have seen so many different aspects of the discussion come together,” Url told EurActiv in an interview, saying some people have used the debate to raise fundamental objections against intensive agriculture in Europe.
“That is legitimate, but it is nothing to do with safety. It is about the way we produce agricultural goods,” Url added. “It is a highly political decision that can only be taken by risk managers.”
When science meets economics, ethics and religion
The Austrian official, who heads the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, says there are “many value statements related to glyphosate which are legitimate” – for example how agriculture should be done in Europe, the quantities of pesticides that should be used, and how to protect biodiversity.
But add US multinational Monsanto and GMOs to the mix and you suddenly get an explosive mixture.
“All of these elements came together at once,” which gave the scientific debate about toxicity almost philosophical proportions, he said. “And this is an area where policy-makers have to make the decisions,” Url said.
“When science meets values, ethics, beliefs, religion, even economic interests – this is where it really gets complicated. And there, from my point of view, food becomes a proxy for a much broader discussion on globalisation, big business, multi-national companies, maybe even inequality.”
This is also where gross misunderstandings about the role of science often occur. When the general public expected EFSA to take a position on whether to ban glyphosate, the Parma-based agency limited its role to drawing scientific conclusions and left the decision to elected politicians, who have the democratic legitimacy to do so.
“This was the big argument: people saw that it was a possible or probable carcinogen and immediately thought that such a substance should not be authorised. But the thing is that the carcinogenicity, if it exists at all, is seen at such levels that you would have to eat the food of 20,000 people every day in order to reach it. And this is unlikely to happen,” Url said.
“So to use the safety argument to say glyphosate is a carcinogen that needs to be banned is not relevant”.
Dr Url, a qualified veterinarian by training, admitted there was increasing public interest about the role of science in politics, which was particularly prevalent with food issues.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the debate about the safety of GMOs. Environmental groups have questioned the independence of risk evaluation studies submitted to EFSA’s scrutiny, drawing attention to the fact that biotech firms have a vested interest in providing evidence that tends to prove GMOs are safe.
EFSA itself has had to tighten its internal rules on conflicts of interest in 2013 after it emerged that one of its senior board members had failed to declare ties with a lobby group from the agro-chemical industry.
But Url said EU rules were sometimes contradictory and that the Horizon 2020 research programme actually requires scientists to collaborate with industry in order to receive EU funds.
“So people are confused. On the one hand we drive them to work with industry and then in order to be credible they have to pretend never to have spoken to industry in their life. That is a major contradiction.”
According to Url, a “political consensus” should be found to establish the level at which it is acceptable for scientists to collaborate with industry.
Pooling resources, restoring trust
EFSA’s rules on conflicts of interest have also made its internal procedures more complex, and slowed down the agency’s ability to issue opinions on food safety. Besides, risk assessment studies tend to cost a lot of money, Url said, citing an independent US study on Bisphenol A which cost $30 million.
“So if people now say that EFSA should commission and fund studies on 20 pesticides, ten GMOs and 20 contaminants each year, you can get an idea of what this would mean financially.”
But requiring taxpayers to pay for such studies would be unfair, Url explained, because industry is the ultimate beneficiary by getting safety clearance to place products on the market.
The answer, Url believes, could involve requiring industry to chip in to a common pot in order to fund scientific studies that can win public trust. “So this is still industry money, the study is only done once, and it is carried out by an independent body like EFSA.”
However, this would require “quite a significant change in the legislation”, Url remarked, doubting whether EU member states and the European Parliament are ready for it. “But you talked about restoring trust and this might be one way to go about it.”
Another way of restoring trust would be to use crowdsourcing – data submitted by citizens, for example bird watchers – not only to improve EFSA’s own opinions but also to gain the acceptance of science by society.
“People now call this the ‘post-truth’ era, so without this acceptance, our job is becoming very difficult,” Url said.
With global trade and related food safety issues on the rise, International collaboration is also increasingly necessary to improve the credibility of science.
“We aim for a European risk assessment community,” Url said. “And with global trade we should take a longer view and aim for a global approach to risk assessment. Of course we talk to our colleagues in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, but there is still some way to go.”