The European regulatory use of the precautionary principle has proven to be a failure. It has failed to deliver good governance to Europeans and serves as an indication how the Commission’s promise of Better Regulation has been a house built on sand. Why has the EU Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF) been unable to renew the glyphosate authorisation? It comes down to the absurd European hazard-based precautionary regulatory mindset.
The Glyphosate Slugfest
I sometimes wonder if there are people on this planet who have not heard about glyphosate. But every day I also wonder how so many vulnerable souls have been so misled to believe the bullshit being spread about this beneficial, low toxicity herbicide. The public outrage has been so high that even after the Portier Papers exposed the greed, lies and self-interest in those attacking glyphosate, even after Reuters showed how IARC juiced the monograph, people could not accept that special interests and misrepresentation were omnipresent.
The coordinated attack on glyphosate is coming from so many diverse opportunistic sources:
- from anti-Monsanto, anti-corporate, anti-globalisation anarchists;
- from naturopaths funded by the organic food industry lobby;
- from activist journalists who have found the attention they crave from fear-mongering;
- from carpetbaggers flown in from the US to run anti-GM campaigns on a continent where there are no glyphosate-resistant seeds;
- from activist scientists wanting to up-end the science-based European risk assessment process;
- from within the European Commission by those trying to reform comitology (even if it means watching as a vital substance for farming is banned);
- from those in industry with alternatives to this 40-year old, off-patent technology.
Only farmers, a few chemical companies and honest regulatory scientists are standing up for facts and defending what has been called the ‘herbicide of the century’. What was supposed to be a simple renewal of a low-toxicity, beneficial herbicide via a technical committee has become the policy debate of the year, simply put, because of the weakness of the European precautionary principle as a regulatory tool.
How did the European regulatory system fail so spectacularly?
The Precaution Panacea
In an earlier blog, I looked at different approaches to precaution and concluded that the European Commission, although not having a strong legal basis, considers the precautionary principle as a reversal of the burden of proof. This means that rather than showing that a product is hazardous, the onus is on the manufacturer of a synthetic chemical to prove that the substance is safe. Safety is a normative concept implying that any evidence supporting the safety of a substance can systematically be rejected as simply “not safe enough” by those possibilists demanding absolute certainty.
Precaution as a “Prove to me it’s safe” regulatory challenge takes a black or white approach to substance approvals. If it is not 100% safe or if there are uncertainties, then we must take precaution. Forget about benefits and don’t even consider if exposures can be mitigated. Such demands on science, as it is presently applied in the EU, are rigid and uncompromising. There is no room for grey areas such as: Under most circumstances, this substance is perfectly safe and of a very low toxicity, however it is impossible to foresee all contingencies and given the high level of benefits from this … “Nope, not good enough! Precaution must be applied!”
Not all substances though are put under such precautionary safety demands (substances from products we like such as chemicals in solar panels, pesticides approved for organic farmers and automotive exhaust fumes seem to be excluded from such rigour). Mobile technologies should have been banned in the early 2000s if the precautionary principle had been applied with integrity. This demand for certainty, however, is used and abused in Brussels by the naive ideologues and the hopelessly hypocritical.
In the real world, precaution is a normal response to when there is uncertainty. If I am not certain about the weather, I will bring an umbrella. If I am not certain about the stock markets, I will put some investments in low-risk vehicles. If I am not certain about my step, I will hold the hand-rail. Precaution is a decision made to limit harm or negative consequences and should follow from a risk assessment. Risk assessments look at the loss of benefits and weigh them up against the threat of possible harm and our ability to manage the exposure. I will look at how severe the weather is and consider whether I should just stay at home; if I should take all of my money out of the market or just balance my portfolio; if I should avoid taking the stairs altogether and take the lift or pursue another destination. In all of these cases, I evaluate the risk management process against the potential loss of benefits.
However, where precaution fails miserably as a response (and certainly as a regulatory policy tool) are in cases where no risk management takes place at all, ie, in cases following merely hazard assessments. A hazard assessment does not look at likelihood (only the possibility something may happen), does not evaluate the means to manage the exposure to the hazard (only that the hazard exists) and does not consider the loss of benefits from removing the uncertainty. If I followed hazard assessments with a precautionary approach, I would never go outside because of the possibility of bad weather, would stuff all of my money in a mattress and would ban all steps and habitations of more than one floor. Benefits be damned in this ridiculous application of precaution based on hazard assessments alone.
Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? This is the world of chemical and pesticide policy management in the European Union. This, I regret to say, is how precaution is being applied to glyphosate, based on a mere hazard assessment.
The IARC glyphosate hazard assessment is being used for all the wrong reasons by all the wrong people.
IARC produced a scientifically questionable hazard-based monograph on glyphosate that delivered the promised activist-endeared verdict of “probably carcinogenic”. As a hazard assessment, it simply tried to make the link of mice being exposed to massive doses of glyphosate and developing a rare type of cancer. IARC’s science, on its own, was dubious as they cherry-picked studies and seem to dedicate more attention to discrediting other scientific agencies than the quality of their own research. The IARC panel did not bother to measure what would be a reasonable exposure to the herbicide to cause cancer; it did not examine how and who would be exposed to glyphosate; and it did not consider how exposures could be mitigated (eg, by farmers wearing gloves). In other words, the IARC hazard assessment monograph was, for all practical purposes, useless.
Useless, of course, unless you were one of the many activist groups waiting to use this fabricated “scientific” conclusion for a wider interest. Two years later and glyphosate, now a question of good versus evil, of industry versus public health, of kind, small organic farmers versus the vicious industrial agricultural rape of the landscape … was hobbling the European Commission under the weight of its creaking commitment to the precautionary principle.
- Hazard assessments do not look at the actual level of exposure – that, outside of farmers, glyphosate exposure was ridiculously low (measured in the part per billion range and at a toxicity level much lower than exposures from most other common substances found in coffee, biscuits and chocolate).
- Hazard assessments do not look at how to mitigate glyphosate exposure. There was no discussion in the IARC report on whether personal protection equipment could be used by farmers to manage the possible risks of exposure to glyphosate.
- Hazard assessments do not look at benefits of a substance and what would happen if precaution were to be employed. How would farmers be able to manage their fields, soil and yields without the herbicide of the century? What alternatives would be used? What would happen to the benefits in soil management through the developments of conservation agriculture pioneers using glyphosate to enable no-till farming with complex cover crops?
Precaution doesn’t work like that. Rather, as a policy tool, it identifies a hazard and seeks to remove it. There is no question of an impact assessment? There is no question of the loss of benefits to farmers, consumers or the environment? Nobody is looking at trade issues. Precaution without a risk assessment merely looks at an uncertainty that must be eradicated. Stripped of a proper, reasonable risk management process, glyphosate became campaign bait for all sorts of self-interested scientifically-agnostic activists.
Did IARC know how its hazard assessment would be abused by the anti-industry, anti-chemical activists. In the next blog I will show how the lead author of the IARC glyphosate monograph was in regular contact with activists and often referred them to scientists who had served on the IARC glyphosate working group.
Any rational scientists would look at the criticisms from the scientific community, IARC’s blatant scientific malpractice and the mountains of valuable research they had excluded and either reopen the IARC glyphosate monograph or simply retract it. Given the pressure of the predatory law firms (with over 10,000 personal damage law suits against Monsanto), such an action would damage the personal interests of many activist scientists involved with the IARC Monograph 112 now serving as litigation consultants. Until IARC’s lame duck director, Christopher Wild, is completely out the door, that so ain’t gonna happen.
Not just an issue for European farmers
One thing that no one has been talking about is how exports to the EU will be affected by this regulatory failure. If glyphosate becomes a banned substance in the EU, any exports to the EU of soy or maize (GM or not), with trace elements of the herbicide, will be blocked. This will also affect food and feed exports to the EU from countries that use glyphosate (meaning exports from everyone).
The reality is stark. After decades of ag-tech regulatory retrenchment, European citizens now rely on farmers in other countries to feed them. While most GM seed technology is banned in Europe, EU livestock farmers are allowed to import GM soy and maize as feed to produce world famous Parma ham or La Bresse hens (but should European farmers grow this evil seed on their own, then European authorities will come swooping down on them in the middle of the night like Greenpeace-funded reapers). However, under the pesticide Directive, this permitted GM maize and soy will be turned back at the border should traces of banned glyphosate be detected on such feed products.
This is madness and it would clearly block most agricultural exports to the EU. I understand how European farmers, who will suffer terribly under this regime of Stupid, will likely stand beside the NGO activist nut-jobs to move to enforce this ban, but this will further add to the suffering of European consumers (who are already paying for the precautionary principle in so many ways). There is no doubt, without glyphosate, European meat prices will increase dramatically, exports will fall and the environment will suffer. But at least the organic-industry funded activists will all celebrate their great precautionary success. Morons!
European elitists will cause Africa to suffer yet again
The effect of this precautionary ban on glyphosate will not only interfere with free, rational trade, consumer access to reasonably-priced agricultural produce and European farmers’ livelihoods, but also how farmers in developing countries manage weeds and subsequent crop yields. In some cases, children in Kenya or Uganda, who should be in school, will be put back into fields to pull weeds as smallholders struggle with fewer, not more, agri-tech options.
Even more offensive (yes, even more than increasing child labour in the developing world), the European perversion of precaution will create a regulatory precedent that most emerging market countries, from Indonesia to Sierra Leone, will simply emulate on their own agricultural regulations (due to export concerns and lack of regulatory science competence). As there are roughly 500 million smallholders (assuming two children and a spouse, that implies a quarter of the world’s population) who tend less than a hectare of land and pay the rent from the crops they can harvest, removing cheap, valuable agri-technologies like glyphosate will hurt yields in good years. As smallholders will be forced to leave the land with less ag-tech, village economies will suffer and global food insecurity will increase.
The European application of the precautionary principle on glyphosate is a disgusting joke that disgraceful organic lobby activists have played on the world and those little self-interested elitist shits should bloody well be ashamed of themselves today!
Blind leading the blind
Precaution as it is used today is at best a blind regulatory tool. Without considering the impact of a glyphosate ban (no European regulatory impact assessment has ever been done), the loss of benefits or consequences of this form of uncertainty management, and only reacting to an extremely remote possible risk of cancer, this regulatory application will fail Europeans and disrupt global agricultural practices and food security.
How could a handful of activists pull this stunt off, with no science, no evidence, limited funds and a few laptops? That is the beauty of precaution and the reversal of the burden of proof in a social media-driven world – it only takes a few uncertainty campaigns and some mal-intentioned activists (and one bloody deceitful statistician) to create doubt in the policy process and distrust in scientific expertise.
This is glyphosate in 2017 – Welcome to the Age of Stupid!
Is there another way?
The European Commission believes the problem rests in the comitology process which it seeks to reform. I see the problem going deeper to the loss of trust in expertise, with fear campaigns imposed by a small activist network with a radical alternative view built on the privileges bestowed on this elite class by the very technologies they seek to eliminate. There are those who want to see the scientific regulatory process replaced with a government-driven citizen-science approach (with non-specialist activists taking a central position at the table). Heaven help us all if the ignorant self-righteous zealots get their way.
Let the Risk-Monger, from the vantage point of his dusty basement, offer some advice:
As we are becoming more technologically dependent, now is not the time to concede the decision-making process to technophobes. Some would say this is not democratic, but in the academic world there are those who have expertise and those without – not everyone can fly an airplane or perform brain surgery and perhaps the question of how we feed the planet is also something that should not be left to the democratic will of arrogantly ignorant. Regulators need to defend the importance of expertise in the process and this starts with glyphosate.
If the European Member States cannot reach a qualified majority either way on the renewal of glyphosate, then the Commission has the right and the obligation to rise above the politics of the interest groups, support the overwhelming evidence of its scientific agencies and renew the herbicide for the proposed ten years in chambers. Anything less would be to cower to those activists trying to undermine the process.
If the European Commission cannot do this, and I question the fidelity of the “Junck Science” mentality from the top, then before any decision is taken to phase out this valuable herbicide, hurt farmers and disrupt global trade and food security, it must commission a regulatory impact assessment and act upon the advice of its experts in the Joint Research Centre.
The use of the precautionary principle as a regulatory tool needs to be analysed. It was introduced through the back door by an activist from Friends of the Earth, David Gee, without any debate or consideration on how it should be applied. With only half a sentence on precaution in the Treaty of Lisbon, the use of the concept is not legitimate or thought through. European regulatory structures are not mature enough to resist the manipulation of activists bent on using precaution for quick policy wins. In the case of glyphosate, the rush of American activists, lobbyists from the US organic food industry, anti-GMO carpetbaggers and predatory litigation lawyers with lawsuits against Monsanto was far too much for the EU regulatory process to survive. It will be worse for EU regulatory structures if and when endocrine disrupting chemicals reach the policy table.
The European Commission needs to educate its policy-makers on the difference between risk and hazard with a clear definition of risk management articulated in a White Paper. The Risk-Monger can easily punch one out for them (at no cost!). Continuing to have hazard-based policies pushed into the regulatory process is a recipe for disaster.
If Juncker’s cabinet does nothing, the alternatives will be grave:
- The alternative is to have the elitist activist community slowly drive a wedge between the privileged foodies and the majority of Europeans unable to afford the luxury lifestyle imposed on them.
- The alternative is to have European activist standards on pesticides (and chemicals in general) become global trade norms, leading to hardship in developing countries.
- The alternative is the continual pilgrimage of Amercian lobbyists, activist carpetbaggers and predatory lawyers coming to Brussels to peck on the rotting flesh of its failed regulatory system.
I’m fed up with our leaders’ inability to avoid these alternatives. We suffer from the lack of leadership we have and probably deserve (but so will the rest of the world).