Farmers hail new transparency rules in food safety, still want science-based decisions

Ensuring greater public access to information when it comes to food safety assessments is a step forward but does not simultaneously guarantee a science-based decision-making process. [Shutterstock]

EU farmers have welcomed the European Commission’s new rules on transparency in food safety assessments. However, it is still uncertain to which extent this will ensure that future decisions will actually be based on science.

Last year, a successful European Citizens’ Initiative on the use of pesticides asked the executive to propose more transparent rules on decisions related to food safety.

The denial of access to scientific studies used for the authorisation of products, in the name of business confidentiality, has triggered strong reactions from health advocates and policymakers, who blame the chemicals industry for a lack of transparency.

On 11 April, the Commission presented new proposals that grant EU citizens greater access to information submitted to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on approvals concerning the agri-food chain.

Commission efforts to build trust in food safety receives mixed reviews

The European Commission presented on 11 April a proposal aiming to restore public trust in scientific studies on food safety, suggesting more transparency in decision-making and greater involvement of member states’ experts.  

Copa Cogeca, the EU farmers union, said in a statement that farmers “welcome steps to ensure transparency of the EU risk assessment model but call for science-based decisions and regulatory framework that promotes innovation.”

Problematic situations often occur at the ‘comitology’ committees, where member states’ representatives decide on implementing acts adopted by the Commission.

There are many examples, such as glyphosate weedkiller, which reached a political deadlock at these committees as the “no-opinion” scenario prevailed, meaning no qualified majority among the member states could be reached.

For this reason, the European Commission proposed in February 2017 several changes to the comitology regulation, aimed at reducing the risk of a ‘no opinion’ scenario.

The proposed changes include: changing the voting rules of the appeal committee to reduce abstentions, introducing the possibility of involvement at ministerial level in no-opinion scenarios, making public the votes of national representatives, and the possibility to refer the matter to the Council.

The proposal has been stuck in the European Parliament for more than a year. European Commission sources explained that the two proposals – the new transparency rules and the comitology regulation – are not connected in substance.

“One is intended to improve the comitology rules as such; the other the way in which the risk assessments in the agri-food chain are conducted prior to decision making and before comitology comes into play,” the sources said.

The only link between those two, the sources underlined, is the fact that both are designed to “increase the transparency for citizens, though in different ways and at different stages of the decision-making process”.

Inconsistent national positions

The core of the EU farmers’ concerns could be seen in the contradictory positions of member states regarding glyphosate, the world’s most commonly used weedkiller, which was ultimately re-approved for 5 years at the EU level.

The re-authorisation of the controversial substance sparked an intense debate in the EU. What the member states voted for and what was actually implemented demonstrates the unpredictability of the decision-making system.

Having previously abstained, Germany voted in favour of re-approving glyphosate in November 2017, thereby permitting its re-authorisation in the EU.

The move triggered a reaction from then Social Democrat Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks (SPD), who said the change of position had not been discussed with her and had been taken by her conservative coalition partners.

But now it seems that new Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, also from SPD, does not want the same “mistakes” to be repeated, and is seeking to remove the substance before the end of the 5-year extension period.

On 11 April, the environment ministry tweeted that in order to halt the decline in biodiversity “we are now setting the course for a major phase-out of glyphosate use by 2021”.

“But that alone is not enough – we need a more restrictive use of all pesticides,” the ministry said.

This position, however, contradicts the stand of the new Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner.

“Prohibitions do not always endure,” Klöckner told Süddeutsche Zeitung in an interview, adding that a prohibition by the “end of this legislature period would be difficult to achieve”.

Greece has also seen a u-turn on glyphosate. It failed to vote for re-authorisation at the European level, preferring a three-year renewal, but subsequently renewed it at the national level for a full five years.

Meanwhile, in France, which was in favour of a total ban, a parliamentary report adopted on 4 April found that there was currently no alternative to glyphosate.

The report noted it was necessary to accelerate research and development work to find credible alternatives but suggested that this “will take time”. It echoed the arguments of French MEP Angélique Delahaye, who told EURACTIV in October 2017 that “it will be very difficult to find an alternative, as it usually takes from seven to ten years. It’s a complicated and lengthy process”.

“Member states should not be hypocrites suggesting an immediate ban and simultaneously telling farmers not to be afraid, because ‘we will find a solution’. […] This is not pragmatic,” Delahaye added.

EU renews glyphosate for five years as Germany swings the balance

A much-awaited qualified majority of EU member states was reached today (27 November) for the re-authorisation of the world's most commonly used weedkiller, glyphosate.

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