13 June 2013 by Pelle Neroth
Tory MEP Julie Girling is stepping up to the plate to call for the launch of a parliamentary body that will stop the scaremongering about health effects that puts so much bad legislation on to the books. This legislation make politicians feel they are being useful but burdens Europe's economic growth with red tape, she believes.
Her intergroup parliamentary advisory panels hopes to get off the ground before the European parliament elections in June 2014, and was prompted by the latest vote that put health fears ahead of science: votes in favour of tighter rules on "cancer-causing" endocrine disruptors and a temporary ban on some chemical pesticides.
This is not to say that endocrine disruptors are without risk; only the votes were taken without a balanced scientific assessment.
According to Girling, votes like these are based on the collective psychology that dominates MEPs' response to the lobbying environment in Brussels. Very few MEPs want to be seen as being in the pockets of industry. This gives the very active left wing lobbying community in favour of progressive causes and based in Brussels an automatic advantage. Their views are amply reflected in the policy stances of the environment committee, the second largest committee in the European parliament
The Professor of Risk Management at King's College London, Ragnar Löfstedt, says too often there is a misapplication of the precautionary principle, which motivated the call for action on endocrine disruptors, present in many household items that include plastics. He said in a recent interview that the proposal "more or less argues that because of the feared effects of endocrine disruptors this should override any evidence-based reasoning.
"Such statements can be applied to more or less anything - you basically could apply it to chocolate, milk or why not coffee."
prof Löfstedt was member of a European Food Safety agency committee which took what some critics say was an overly lenient approach to endocrine disruptors in an opinion earlier this year. It said it preferred an assessment based on actual risk (hazard and exposure) rather than one based on the sole properties of the substances under consideration, (hazard). That is the crux of the argument, and Löfstedt argues that actual risk is more relevant when determining bans.
And he has a very interesting argument that risk perception is based very much on where you are from. The culture that affects your thinking, and the economic interests you have.
Economic considerations may play an unconscious - and sometimes not so unconscious - part. In the 1990s, Europe set very strict limits on aflatoxins, naturally occurring mycotoxins that can affect growing foodstuffs, that had the effect of severely limiting food imports from Africa - to the misery of African farmers and the joy of European farmers and the strong lobby that backs them.
And yet: this ban was estimated to reduce the number of deaths from liver cancer at one a year, says the professor of risk management. One life a year saved! There was a total disparity between the harshness of the legislation and the benefits it produced. That is, if you didn't consider the fact it benefited European farmers. It was an economic blockade masquerading as health legislation.
The economic interests come in that every country wants to ban different things. The Swedes want very strict chemicals legislation because they don't have a chemicals industry. And so want a non toxic world by 2020. Austria is very hostile to GMOs because Monsanto is based in Missouri and not Vienna. And so on. Companies want to ban stuff that doesn't cost jobs. The tragedy is that some real risks are ignored in this process of hunting for risk factors.
Particulate matter risks ignored
One example of double standards is while Sweden is pushing for a "toxin free" society on the rest of Europe, it is pushing for permission to allow the continued consumption of fatty Baltic fish, despite the fact that dioxins in these food stuffs are five times the recommended daily intake level. Why? Because the interests of Swedish fishermen are paramount.
One real danger to human health comes from particulate matter that occurs in diesel exhausts. Europe genuinely needs more legislation on that. And yet such stricter legislation does not come forth. Why? Because legislators are biased in favour of risks that are unknown, uncertain, unquantified, come from a distrusted industry like the chemicals industry, and particularly affect children. The endocrine disruptor proposals - where it is highlighted that children are those particularly vulnerable to household plastics containing endocrine disruptors - hits all the fear buttons, while diesel particulate matter does not: cars are familiar, they have been around forever, everyone drives cars, particulate matter affects old people and not just children, and the danger is avoidable, if you stay inside.
The result is that there is the risk we we spend too much worry about things that are unlikely in practical terms to harm us over things that do. You could argue that the enormous security states that have been erected to save lives from terrorism, when fewer people die from terror each year than die in their bath tubs, is part of the same phenomenon.
The solution - in the case of EU health legislation - is in transferring risk assessments to real, independent, academic risk committees. There are some good committees already doing good evidence based work on behalf of the EU. Prof Löfstedt cites the European Medicines Agency based on London which legislates on the risks of side effects to benefits ratios of new medicines.
Engineers would surely agree on the importance of putting risk assessments above politics. And it is worth reminding oneself, from time to time, that life itself is a fatal disease.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 13 June 2013 at 03:12 PM by Pelle Neroth
European to allow political bans on GMOs
20 July 2011 by Pelle Neroth
By an overwhelming majority vote, the EP has proposed a double lock against any new GM crop introduction. Even when the crop has been approved by the European Food Safety Standards Agency, which is hard enough in itself, individual nation states will be at full liberty to ban the new crop for, well, any "socioeconomic or political purposes" they choose to. Not that the EU is exactly overrun with GM crops.
While virtually all soya bean, cotton and corn grown in the United States is GM-modified, injected with pest or herbicide resistant genes, GM crops are banned in France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg and Austria.
And they are infrequent elsewhere in the EU: Only in Spain have they attained some measure of popularity: eighty percent of Europe's GM crops are grown there. And only one food crop has been given the green light, a type of maize called MON810, made by Monsanto. The EP vote has just made it even less likely they will be introduced to many European countries.
It won't technically affect the UK, or other countries that do want to pursue a growth policy, but it just adds to the general climate of hostility elsewhere. The National Farmer's Union was critical of the EU decision, saying in a press release:
"We are disappointed that MEPs have decided to act according to emotive and political agendas rather than robust scientific evidence.This stance could discourage scientific research and investment in the EU which are crucial for sustainable agriculture."
GM foods are not the panacea to the world's food problem. With the world's population set to be nine billion by 2050, the Royal Society has called for a "Second Green Revolution". If the Amazon is not to be cut down for intensive agriculture, there is going to have to be a realignment in food research priorities.
Drought resistant crops that use less water and provide higher yields, but also better science on basics such as how to improve mixed farming practices and maximising crop rotation advantages will also be required. Better road networks and funding agencies for farmers in Africa are another wish list item, as is political stability.
While GM technology does not increase yields, yet, new generations of GM crops, with their ability to resist pests, are part of the toolbox, though. The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine recently did a survey of surveys and concluded that, of all the billions of people who have eaten GM modified foods - three quarters of US foodstuffs contain them - there has not been a single certified case of ill health resulting from it.
This hasn't stopped regular demonstrations by ecologically minded young activists in cities and farms of Europe, and outside the European parliament. So the MEPs are certainly going with the popular flow. But if leadership sometimes means doing the right thing against popular opinion, and communicating properly why, the Euro-politicians are not showing it.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 30 July 2011 at 03:19 PM by Pelle Neroth
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