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Regulating the regulators? Proposed new measures on pesticide authorization in the European Union

18 February 2019 Editorial
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The campaign to stop glyphosate reauthorization in the European Union failed to ban glyphosate, but it succeeded brilliantly in exposing the agrochemical industry's grip on the regulatory agencies tasked with protecting public health and the environment. The campaign aftershocks continue.

In the wake of the Monsanto Papers revelations and effective campaigns channeling public outrage over the EU's farcical reauthorization of the world's most widely used herbicide, the European Parliament last year established a Special PEST Committee to examine the procedures under which pesticides are authorized for use in the European Union. The Committee's report, released in December 2018 and approved by an overwhelming cross party majority of the parliament on January 16, catalogued the multiple failures of the authorization process. These include: reliance on the industry's own (unpublished) safety assessment studies which demonstrated zero evidence of toxicity, in vivid contrast to the published, peer-reviewed independent studies which led the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer to classify glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, the lack of testing under real-world conditions and absence of follow-up tests; neglect of chronic toxicity, and the institutionalized absence of transparency. (The report is available here and worth reading in full.)

Just hours before the January 16 vote, the results of a study commissioned by a coalition of the European Parliament's Socialists & Democrats/Green/European United Left-Nordic Green Left MP's was released. The study confirmed that the glyphosate safety assessment produced by the German Institute for Risk Assessment, on which the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) based its decision to relicense glyphosate, incorporated substantial quantities of recycled, copied and pasted Monsanto text. An EFSA spokesperson nevertheless stated that "EFSA' stands firmly behind the integrity of its risk assessment processes and its conclusions on glyphosate."

With European institutions under growing pressure from the multiple scandals, on February 11 the EU Council and Parliament reached 'provisional agreement' on measures to substantially revise the risk assessment procedures for product authorizations in the food chain, including pesticides. The new procedures, if followed through on, mark a significant, if partial and preliminary, success for the glyphosate campaign. They fall short of the PEST recommendations (and the European Citizens' Initiative demands), but can be a lever for prying loose the pesticide lobby's hold on the public regulatory agencies.

Under the proposed new procedures (see the EU Commission fact sheet here), it will no longer be possible for a manufacturer to unilaterally designate a Rapporteur Member State to rubber stamp a request for authorization/reauthorization on the basis of confidential industry reports. Safety assessments will still be provided by the manufacturer seeking authorization, but the reports will be published, accessible and subject to scrutiny and challenge.

Among other measures, changes in the EFSA Management Board procedures include a governance role for civil society, Member States and the European Parliament. There is a possibility for EFSA to commission risk assessment studies of its own, financed by the EU budget.

The devil is in the detail, and each potential pressure point for expanding public oversight will be fiercely contested, e.g. establishing the grounds for challenging an industry study, designating the 'stakeholders', defining the 'consultation' process, ensuring transparency and follow-up.

Moreover, the wider procedural reform being proposed is not limited to pesticide authorization. The provisional agreement encompasses a review of the General Food Law Regulation requiring the amendment of eight pieces of legislation dealing with specific sectors of the food chain. These include, in addition to pesticides, GMOs, feed and food additives, food contact materials and 'novel foods' (a category which includes any food with no significant history of consumption in the EU prior to 1997, or foods involving novel production techniques, like lab-grown meat and dairy products). The full implications are broader still, since the EFSA safety assessment procedures are similar to those of other EU scientific institutions which inform regulators, like the European Chemicals Agency ECHA.

What happens next? The Commission will submit specific legislative proposals to the European Parliament and to Members States,"in the current legislative period, i.e. by mid-2019, for a swift implementation."

The Commission will have to be held to its word and not allowed to hide behind the Member States, a card it played successfully to ram through glyphosate reauthorization in the face of massive public opposition. It is again dishonestly playing this card to delay action to ban the pesticide products which are decimating Europe's pollinating insects, blaming the Member States for its own abject capitulation to the agrochemical lobby.

The Commission, however, has acknowledged the impact of the European Citizens' Initiative to ban glyphosate, which gathered over one million signatures. The glyphosate campaign brought together a broad range of civil society, environmental groups and trade unions. IUF/IUF-EFFAT were early endorsers of the Citizens for Science in Pesticide Regulation coalition. All these efforts contributed to the political momentum leading to the adoption of the PEST report by 77% of Euro MPs.

A window has been opened; the pesticide lobby will be working intensely to slam it shut. Now is the time to step up organizing on the broadest possible basis at national, European and international level for an immediate ban on the most toxic agrochemicals, targeted reductions in pesticide use and comprehensive support for a transition to socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture.