EFSA chief: Assessing fast-changing agrifood innovation is key challenge [Part I]

EFSA boss: "Sustainability is saving the biodiversity of the planet. If, as we know in 2050, there will be 10 billion people on the planet more or less and they all want to eat, biodiversity has to be preserved and greenhouse gases have to be reduced." [EFSA]

Being equipped with the right methods to assess industry’s rapidly changing innovation will be a key challenge for the European Food Safety Authority, (EFSA), Bernhard Url, the EU food watchdog’s chief, told EURACTIV.com in a wide-ranging interview.

Bernhard Url is the executive director at the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). He spoke to EURACTIV’s Network Editor Sarantis Michalopoulos.

*EURACTIV is publishing the first part of the interview today. The second part will be published on Friday (21 February). 

The first question is about the Green Deal and what role EFSA could play.

Regarding the Green Deal, EFSA is obviously only affected in the agri-food part, which means sustainability from farm to fork. The political aim is to make agriculture and the agri-food system sustainable, which has many aspects ranging from food waste, diet, nutrition, to the amount of animal protein, but it’s also about farming practices. It’s the use of agro-chemicals and EFSA can and will support the European Commission when it’s about the reduction of the use and or the risk of pesticides. We are doing this work already now on how human health is affected by pesticides.

But I think here it is even more the question of environmental risk assessment. Proposals have been made by the Scientific Advice Mechanism or the PEST Committee of the European Parliament on how to improve the system without changing the legal framework. There, EFSA can support the Commission in conducting together with member states a more targeted environmental risk assessment.

So, pesticides can be used more targeted in what we would call “sustainable use of pesticides”, which would mean replacement of higher risk pesticides with low-risk pesticides. would also contemplate a more targeted use of pesticides on the field, which would mean environmental monitoring systems in order to see the impact of pesticides on biodiversity, soil and water.

So coming back to your question, under the umbrella of the Green Deal, EFSA in a way is one of the scientific advisors of the European Commission and the Parliament.

Speaking of reducing the impact of pesticides in the environment, what are the other ways to reduce pesticides?

Well, I think there is no “the” solution, but if there is a solution, it’s integrated pest management, where you use other means than chemical pesticides or chemical molecules to control pests, such as crop rotation, soil fertility, using cultivars that are resistant to certain pests.

Agricultural services that monitor the growth of pathogens and give exactly the right time when pesticide should be applied. It’s basically surveillance and monitoring services that the member states run looking at weather conditions and climate, the blossoming state of plants and the pressure of pests…And only when all this information is available then they say now we should use pesticides. The European Court of auditors recently said Europe could do more. I think Integrated Pest Management is something that would contribute to that goal.

What is your involvement in the discussion over controversial new plant breeding techniques, following the much-discussed EU Court decision?

What we do is the scientific assessment of genetically modified organisms according to the existing legal frameworks. As you said, the Court has ruled that the existing legislative framework has to be applied also on gene editing.

We are currently evaluating whether our tools for risk assessment are also suitable for the new techniques like genome editing, synthetic biology and gene drive. So, tasked by the European Commission, we are working to see whether our methodology can also deal with these new techniques.

Public consultation on gene drive was opened this week (Monday 17 February). While others on synthetic biology and genome editing will be launched in the next weeks. Regarding the change of the legal framework, of course, that’s a question for the legislators. I think the Council has already asked the Commission to come up with a study.

Sustainability is saving the biodiversity of the planet. If, as we know in 2050, there will be 10 billion people on the planet more or less and they all want to eat, biodiversity has to be preserved and greenhouse gases have to be reduced.

To bring this all together -more calories, no more land use and reduction of greenhouse gases- a lot of innovation will be needed. Innovation is a key driver to achieve that. And via this innovation, new products, new processes, novel foods, new agro-chemicals, new plant breeding technologies will come up. And when that happens, EFSA must be in the position to assess that. So, we need the technology, the knowledge and the data to make an assessment of the risks, maybe even the benefits of these new technologies.

I find it “naive” in any case to imagine that genomic crop-breeding techniques could solve world hunger. Nonetheless, it could be one of the 20-25 measures that bring a balance between available food and the world’s population demand by 2050.

Yes, but innovation changes rapidly and a new legal framework may come in eight years. Do you believe that talks should be sped up?

Well, it’s not for me to tell the legislators they should speed up. But taking nanotechnology as an example, the substances have been used, they have been on the market in cosmetics, in pesticides, and medicines for years. And we still discuss what the definition of nanomaterials is, we don’t have the right methodology. Something went wrong, or we were not fast enough in the process, and with this as a background, I think it will be needed also to be fast in the process. But that’s also true for EFSA to develop methodologies that we can assess the stuff; it’s not only a legal framework, you know. It’s not our business but one of the main challenges of EFSA is to keep up with industry, which innovates relentlessly so that we have the right methods to assess innovation.

Where are we when it comes to glyphosate?

As you might know, three years before an approval runs out of time, applicants have to ask for reapproval if they want and the date for glyphosate is on 15 December 2022. So, three years before, which means on 15 December 2019. The industry group has filed an application. EFSA received this application in January 2020. We have looked at it, whether it’s admissible, and have said yes, which means that the industry group has now six months to come up with the supplementing dossier with the real studies.

They will provide that in June 2022. The rapporteur member states, which is now a consortium of four member states – France, Sweden, Hungary and the Netherlands – will assess and produce a draft assessment report and we will get the draft assessment report in June 2021. We do then a public consultation and our final conclusions, so that our legislators can decide in autumn 2022.

What’s your estimation about its renewal process? Considering that France is in this process, we have fewer emotions?

You know, science is not about feelings and estimation, we have to look at the data and have a science-based approach. Let’s look at the data if there’s new evidence. It’s not only EFSA being responsible for glyphosate, it’s also the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). It’s them within the EU deciding on the classification of chemicals. And most likely for the glyphosate renewal process, there will be a request to ECHA to work on the reclassification. EFSA will carry out its risk assessment in parallel.

This looks like the inverse process of the last reassessment of glyphosate, when EFSA published its peer review and ECHA, one year and a half later, its classification.

Yes. Last time we came up with a provisional classification because there was none. And then ECHA confirmed that provisional assessment. But this time the process will be run differently: ECHA will do the classification – and determine whether glyphosate is carcinogenic or not – and on the basis of that, EFSA will carry out the risk assessment, which looks at the risks on human health, the environment and biodiversity when exposed to the active substance.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]


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