EFSA boss: Next time we should also assess consequences without glyphosate

Bernhard Url is the executive director at the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

The next re-authorisation process for the controversial glyphosate weedkiller should also include an assessment of a potential ban of the substance in terms of food availability, biodiversity and farmers’ income, Bernhard Url told EURACTIV.com in an interview.

“Communication is key and that is maybe the biggest lesson we had to learn. I think we all underestimated the emotional power of glyphosate,” he said.

Bernhard Url is the executive director at the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). He spoke to EURACTIV’s Gerardo Fortuna.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The General Food Law adopted this year is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough
  • Transparency is not an objective per se, engagement with civil society is crucial
  • A reasonable distinction on what is policy and what is science is needed
  • Public debate on glyphosate should focus around its use, not its safety
  • Unrealistic that GFL will be fully implemented in April 2021
  • EFSA is “significantly underfunded”
  • EU court ruling applying Aarhus convention sets higher standards than GFL

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There are a lot of expectations from the public on the General Food Law (GFL), adopted in February. Do you think these new rules will really work as a shield for EFSA against public mistrust?

The GFL is a big step in the right direction because it gives us the legal obligation and the possibility to proactively release data that we use in our risk assessment. It fits 100% with our ‘open EFSA’ approach we’ve run since 2014 and it gives us, finally, the option to say that we don’t have anything to hide.

It’s a good step forward even for science, as science is organised scepticism. When the data will be available, other scientists can look at it not only scrutinising the work we do but maybe also finding patterns in the meta-analysis that the regulators haven’t seen. More data will be available for more brains to look into possible risks, and this is good in terms of public health.

Chorus of approval over new EU food safety transparency rules

On Wednesday (17 April) a large majority of MEPs gave a thumbs up to an overhaul of  the General Food Law (GFL). The increased transparency of the EU risk assessment, already acknowledged as one of the most stringent in the world, has now been hailed.

But will public opinion be satisfied with this?

Transparency is not an objective per se but a tool for accountability, as it gives means to civil society to hold public institutions accountable. Will this ultimately lead to trust? I think this is not an automatism. It can be a prerequisite for trust, but then you need something more.

The other step is the engagement with civil society. So, the question is, can we make the civil society in a way a partner in our scientific endeavour? And this is why we run a stakeholders’ engagement approach, by speaking with the civil society. We have roundtables, communication labs, focus groups, to inform the civil society what we do, but also to get some input. And I hope that this engagement will show people that we are competent, and we are trustworthy.

So, is the engagement with civil society the ‘silver bullet’?

Well, is there a silver bullet? I think EFSA needs many different activities. Let’s put it the other way. We cannot ask for trust but we can behave trustworthily, even if we publish output that people don’t like. Sometimes, when people say they don’t like our opinion is because it does not fit their political agenda, and then they start questioning our competence, reputation and motives. What we would like to achieve is people saying “I don’t like our output, but I trust you and I will not shoot at you.”

Science and public opinion: Where do politicians stand?

Policy makers, industry and civil society are trying to find a way to reconcile scientific evidence with public opinion’s beliefs when it comes to food safety. However, this has proved time and again to be a difficult challenge.

A new procedure for the re-authorisation of glyphosate is about to start. Are there some lessons from the past that EFSA has learnt in dealing with such a sensitive issue?

Communication is key and that is maybe the biggest lesson we had to learn. I think we all underestimated the emotional power of glyphosate.

Glyphosate has become the symbol of much more: it’s no longer about a herbicide, but about the way we do agriculture in Europe, the loss of insects and pollinators, the globalisation of trade, biodiversity…

This can only be dealt with proper communication but also with a reasonable distinction between what is policy and what is science. To give you an example, people were surprised when they found glyphosate in the urine of their children. But this is a policy question: if we use glyphosate, we will find it, because analytical methods are so sensitive nowadays that basically everything can be found.

If you don’t want to find traces of glyphosate in beer or in spaghetti, then you have to talk about its use and not about its safety. All the traces have been found present no safety concerns and all other regulators in the world have said it is safe if it is used properly. But it does not mean that it has to be used.

What I hope for the next glyphosate reauthorisation is that there’s also an assessment on what would it mean, if glyphosate or herbicides are not used anymore for biodiversity, water, farmers income, food prices, availability of foods and so on. This was what we missed in the previous glyphosate discussion.

The GFL is not entering into force overnight. How to manage the progressive implementation of the main provisions?

Huge expectations have been created now and we work obviously for meeting them. But it’s a stepwise procedure that will take time and most likely the regulation will be enforced in April 2021. For that time, we have to set up many technical and software solutions databases, as well as to talk with industry about data formats and member states in the PAFF committee have to decide on them. An implementing act from the Commission is also needed and many other preparatory works need to be done. I think we have to be realistic here, not everything will be fully implemented in April 2021.

In order to manage this implementing process, it’s very important to have also stakeholders on board. So, in addition to our internal team and together with the Commission, we will create something like an advisory board where to invite our stakeholders to show them what we do, how fast can we do it and also have their support.

The GFL is supposed to give you more money, but the final allocation depends on the approval of the EU budget for 2021-2027 (the Multi-Annual Financial Framework, or MFF). Do you fear that EFSA’s budget risks to be sacrificed in those negotiations?

It’s very difficult to predict the outcome of the MFF talks. But we are confident because both the two co-legislators agreed on the new food transparency rules. And I also think that the Council is aware that EFSA needs extra money for these provisions.

Transparency doesn’t come for free, new tasks need resources. The Commission has put forward a detailed table on which amount of money and new officers is needed, so it’s also very transparent why EFSA needs additional money. It is also important to notice that 65% of this new money will flow back to the member states, as it will be used to strengthen our ties with national competent authorities.

Is there a risk of competition with other agencies during the MFF negotiation?

Let’s be honest: we are talking about an increase of €62.5 million per year, which is a lot of money, but not that much compared to the budget for other allocation like the Common Agricultural Policy or Frontex. Today EFSA costs €80 million per year, which is peanuts if you look at the importance of food safety for the citizens, agro-economy and agrifood business. Europe is the world champions in food exports, and this is also because of the safety of our food.

If you note that €3-4 trillion in Europe are generated by the agrifood industry and that the EU spends only €80 million on the EU Food Safety Agency, you understand why EFSA is significantly underfunded, also regardless of the new GFL allocation, as it will increase the budget for new tasks.

Which kind of synergies could be put in place with other EU institutions also to cope with this problem of underfunding?

Partnerships with our sister agencies, like the European chemicals agency (ECHA), the medicines agency (EMA), the EU Environment Agency (EEA), and last but not least, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) are strategic and extremely important. But not only for saving money, but for fulfilling a holistic view on how to manage chemicals in our daily life, which is a big policy area.

There are many issues that EFSA cannot solve alone and these agencies are natural partners, as well as national institutes for food safety that help us to create a real European risk-assessment community.

Almost simultaneously with the final approval of the GFL, there was an EU court ruling that seems to set higher standards for the disclosure of industry information when it comes to pesticides authorisation. Is there a problem of compliance between the court ruling and the GFL?

The General Food Law said that every study that applicants put into their dossier is in principle public. However, for 4 specified items industry can ask for confidentiality if this is substantiated with justifiable information that reveals disclosure would significantly harm their business interests. This list is a real game changer and if EFSA detects a health risk, even this confidentiality doesn’t work anymore.

The court came from another route, the Aarhus convention, which says that if a substance ends up in the environment, citizens have the right to be informed about that. The Aarhus convention is going further than the GFL because it said that if such information is requested, it always overrides confidentiality claims. Now, a court ruling concerns always a specific case, it’s not making law. The question is how and for which other products this case can be extrapolated?

I think the GFL already sets very high standards and that, in a way, converges with the ruling asking for more transparency, which is really good for us. Obviously, the industry has some concerns about the competitiveness of European industry. There was also a lot of discussions on when in the risk assessment process EFSA should disclose this information. The legislators have decided that this should happen very early, so after a few weeks, EFSA will already have to decide whether this confidentiality can be applied.

EU court prioritises transparency over ‘secrecy’ in landmark glyphosate ruling

An EU court ruled on 7 March that the EU Food Safety Authority (EFSA) should publicise studies about Monsanto’s glyphosate, the world’s most commonly used weedkiller, which has sparked intense controversy in Europe.

As you know, your predecessor could become the head of FAO, would you like to wish her good luck?

Yes, that would be fantastic. From my personal perspective, it would be great if Catherine  [Geslain-Laneelle] would be elected as Director-General of FAO. I know her from my own experience, she was my boss at EFSA. She’s a fantastic woman, powerful, smart. And I think also for FAO, it would be good to have a woman at the helm of this global organization.

But I think it would be good for the collaboration between ESA and FAO. What we say is “if it’s not safe, it’s not food.” And how we can make safe food sustainable is, in addition to climate change one of the biggest challenges of the planet.

EU's FAO candidate champions producing 'more and better'

There is no universal solution to producing more and better produce, according to the former head of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), who is now running to become director general of the UN’s food and agriculture agency (FAO).

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Frédéric Simon]

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