Science and public opinion: Where do politicians stand?

MEP Pavel Poc: "There are NGOs and NGOs". [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report A difficult balance: Science, politics and policy-making on food.

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 number of issues related to food safety, ranging from glyphosate to neonicotinoids, have recently launched a heated debate over the right balance between science, politics and policy-making.

The industry accuses a part of the NGOs community of making needless noise and has urged policymakers to focus on science.

On the other hand, the civil society says the industry should be more transparent about the safety-proof studies while EU policymakers, particularly the European Commission, insists it is consistent with science.

The EU executive recently presented new transparency rules in the decisions related to approvals in the agri-food chain. However, it seems the legal framework will not fully solve the puzzle unless relevant stakeholders understand each other’s role in the process.

The difficult balance

“Public opinion is more like a belief and people tend to accept that something is true without proof,” said Czech MEP Pavel Poc (S&D).

He added there were limited options for lawmakers to bring together the necessary and pungent uncertainty of science and the human desire for the comfort of believing, except to strive for as much safety as achievable under given conditions.

Public opinion is something that must always be carefully listened to and taken into account, as it is often a valuable indicator of the type of information people are receiving and engaging with, according to Joanna Dupont Inglis, who represents the biotech industry groups in the EU (EuropaBio).

But public opinion sometimes does not align with the opinion of scientific experts, as evidenced on issues such as climate change, plant protection regulation, vaccines and genome editing, agri-food giant Bayer told EURACTIV.

“Policy-makers are responsible for both representing the public interest and understanding the complexities of issues and ultimately determining policy outcomes,” Bayer said.

Croatian MEP Marijana Petir (EPP) said that “in order to make a good decision, it should be based on accurate and verified data.”

She pointed out that missing, false, hidden or manipulated data, as well as mistakes in the assessment process by the competent authorities, could undermine citizens’ confidence.

Mistrust of public agencies

“The reality is that our food has never been safer than today, and the varied diet that we now have is helping us to live healthier and longer,” EuropaBio’s Joanna Dupont Inglis told EURACTIV.

Despite this, she said, public trust in modern agricultural technologies and our food safety system seems to be at a historic low.

Basing decisions on disinformation instead of robust science could lead to bans on products that can provide real benefits to the environment and our economy, she said and urged EU policymakers, including EU member states, to “support the scientific advice provided by EFSA on products like GMOs, and better communicate real versus perceived benefits and risks of agricultural technologies.”

For Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU food policy adviser, there is mainly a mistrust of public agencies tasked with assessing safety.

“And it is not a matter of public opinion versus science, but literally about opinion presented by these agencies,” she said.

The mistrust arises when there is a scientific controversy between different regulatory bodies responsible for providing an opinion on the same topic. Things are getting complex “if the public finds that different bodies have different opinions, as well as EFSA presents the exact same opinion as companies like Monsanto,” she added.

Achterberg referred to the case of glyphosate, which was approved by EFSA, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other national food safety agencies, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said the chemical substance is “probably carcinogenic”.

Transparency matters

For MEP Poc, there are also some loopholes to be closed during the risk assessment process.

He said that currently, EFSA can only assess regulated products on the basis of the authorisation dossiers submitted by applicants, without commissioning additional studies to verify the safety of a given substance or product.

So if EFSA considers that certain data is missing, it can either ask the applicant to provide this data or note in its scientific opinion that some uncertainties remain due to a lack of data.

Then it is up to the risk managers to decide whether to authorise the substance/product and very often, he noticed, they disregard the data gaps and authorise it without further research.

“This has been the case notably for flavourings and food additives,” Poc said, adding that they are trying to fix this with the new proposed rules.

Verification studies foreseen in the Commission proposal could be a positive element in case of a scientific uncertainty, as long as they are not used to “buy some time to keep unsafe substances on the market,” he said.

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Scrutinise NGOs

Considering that NGOs are also part of the debate and have a role in keeping the public informed, the industry says they also have to be scrutinised.

“Arguably we would never have had the Paris Climate accord, the UN SDGs or the conservation of many endangered species, amongst other things, without the work, passion and dedication of numerous NGOs,” EuropaBio’s Dupont Inglis stressed.

Nonetheless, there are many instances where some NGOs have spread misinformation about agricultural technologies, including GMOs, which have been safely commercialised around the world for over 20 years now, she said.

The role of the NGO is to question the evidence, thus keeping scientists and institutions involved in these processes alert, according to MEP Petir.

“There are NGOs and NGOs,” said MEP Pavel Poc, showing admiration for those rising from true public or from the university, because of their work in creating a counterbalance to the powerful lobbying machinery of the industry.

“Then there are NGOs founded by industry to oppose the first ones. No need to scrutinise them in any way, these are demons to be exorcised. They destroy democracy, they destroy the public opinion, they destroy the chance of the public to influence anything,” he told.

He added that there is even a third group, the NGOs which defend a particular interest of a narrow group of people.

“Such NGOs are sometimes useful, sometimes detrimental, especially when pretending to protect interests of “all”, but these are fortunately easily recognisable and their information always has to be scrutinised,” he concluded.

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A difficult balance: Science, politics and policy-making on food

The discussion about food policies in Europe is often heated up and quite frequently politicised. The right balance between science, politics and policy-making has always been difficult to achieve.

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