This article is part of our special report Risk vs. hazard in policymaking.
SPECIAL REPORT / The European Parliament needs more science and less emotion in making decisions on chemicals, pesticides and other contentious legislation, an MEP said on Tuesday (11 June), arguing that lawmakers were influenced by "scaremongering" and environmental lobbying in recent votes.
British MEP Julie Girling, who heads an informal risk group in the assembly, said votes in favour of tighter rules on endocrine disrupters and a temporary ban on some chemical pesticides were taken without balanced scientific assessment.
The Conservative MEP told EURACTIV the Parliament should create a formal risk group to advise lawmakers on legislation areas where there are potential clashes involving science and risks to human health.
If such an intergroup advisory panel should be formalised before elections in May 2014, as Girling advocates, it would mark a trend of seeking more expert risk advice among the top Brussels echelon and in line with similar advisory groups available to many national politicians.
In 2012, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso named British academic Anne Glover as his chief science advisor who has since weighed in with defenses of genetically modified crops and shale gas. This year he formed an expert panel to provide advice independent of the EU’s existing food, chemicals and medicines agencies and the Commission’s own Joint Research Centre.
Speaking in Dublin, Girling did not mince words in criticising recent votes calling for tighter restrictions on endocrine disrupters, chemicals found in plastics and herbicides that are linked to cancers and hormonal problems, as well as neonicotinoid pesticides.
She accused the “lobbying environment” in Brussels of swaying votes despite differing scientific assessments of the risks to humans.
“Many MEPs,” Girling told the European Risk Summit, “choose not to engage with industry due to the belief that such engagement could be construed as being in the pocket of industry, being in the pocket of big business".
“Such attitudes, plus substantial donor funding, can give many Brussels-based NGOs a lobbying edge over their industry counterparts. This point is especially true for MEPs sitting on the environment committee, the second largest legislative committee in the Parliament and this oversees some of the most important legislative proposals, and many of those have a real element of risk management.”
The resolution urging the European Commission to tighter regulation of chemicals linked to endocrine disrupters, though non-binding, sends the wrong signals to the public about safety, Girling said. The document was adopted in a vote in March.
‘Woolly’ approach to risk
One critic called the resolution – shepherded through Parliament by Swedish Social-Democrat Åsa Westlund – “woolly.”
“It is a fascinating read in which more or less argues that, because of the feared effects of endocrine disrupters, this should override any evidence-based reasoning,” Ragnar Löfstedt, director of the King’s College Centre for Risk Management in London, told EURACTIV in an interview. “Such statements can be applied to more or less anything – you basically could apply it to chocolate, milk or why not coffee.”
For Girling, the vote was a mistake. “Our job in the Parliament is to try to make sure those messages don’t go out unless they are substantiated, because the last thing we need is the public being stirred up by something which is just scaremongering,” she told the Risk Summit.
Campaign groups have a different take. They have long complained that industry groups have the upper hand in influencing the EU's risk-review process, including longstanding complaints that business-friendly scientists have influenced risk assessments made by the EU's chemicals and food safety agencies.
Science goes both ways
Conservation groups contend there is ample scientific evidence to justify the EU’s decision this spring to impose a two-year ban on three neonicotinoid insecticides – clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam. The chemicals have been linked to declining populations of bees, nature’s prolific pollinators.
François Veillerette, president of Pesticides Action Network Europe, a Brussels campaign organisation, on Tuesday called for the "total prohibition of this family of insecticides," citing new research showing that short-term measures would not protect bee populations.
Another group, the Corporate Europe Observatory, has reported that leading pesticide manufacturers led a lobbying offensive against legislative restrictions on the bug-killing chemicals.
The head of the European Environment Bureau (EEB), a coalition of green NGOs across Europe, also challenged Girling’s accusations that conservationists had extraordinary influence in the European Parliament.
“It’s one-sided, that’s the nicest way I can put it,” Mikael Karlsson, president of the EEB and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, told EURACTIV in Dublin.
“Saying that NGOs are in the Parliament all the time and that industry is quiet – if you count the number of letters, the number of lobbyists, the number of meetings, the number of euros [from] industry compared to NGOs, it’s the other way around.”
Karlsson said legislators needed to “take responsibility. Politicians just can’t surrender and put it in the hands of scientists.”
Risk and regulation
The Risk Conference focuses on the balance between risk and regulation, concerns that routinely surface in debates about the EU’s REACH chemicals regulation or genetically modified crops.
For Girling, who is a member of the Parliament’s agricultural committee, determining risk goes well beyond emotional or political debates. There is also concern that regulation will stifle economic growth and Europe's competitive edge against less-regulated emerging markets.
“If you take the precautionary view every time, it is a risk to innovation," said Girling.