Bayer fights transparency

Bayer and other chemical companies are fighting a plan by the European Commission that would allow critical researchers to check pesticide studies ahead of approvals

Chemical company Bayer is fighting against a plan from the EU Commission for more transparency in the controversial approval of pesticides and GM crops, according to a report in the German daily Taz. The association of European pesticide producers ECPA, which is chiefly controlled by the German company, has rejected in a position paper the most important points of the Commission's draft regulation.

For example, the Commission's draft regulation proposes that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will immediately publish safety studies on a pesticide active substance as soon as it receives them. Thus far, the authorities have only published the data on which approval procedures are based after lengthy applications or court proceedings.

On Tuesday, the Environment Committee of the European Parliament will decide on the draft regulation.

The Commission's initiative comes in response to criticism of the re-approval of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the most widely used herbicide, last year. At that time, the EU countries re-approved the weedkiller for another five years, because the EU chemicals agency ECHA and EFSA had declared the use of glyphosate to be largely harmless.

However, the agencies relied mainly on animal studies that manufacturers (including the current Bayer subsidiary Monsanto) had commissioned and kept secret from the public. The World Health Organization's cancer research agency IARC, meanwhile, had categorized glyphosate as a "probable carcinogen".

Commission should be allowed to commission studies

IARC relied only on publicly available studies, which can also be verified by independent researchers. All this has led to some citizens losing confidence in the EU regulatory agencies. More than one million people therefore signed a petition from the EU Citizens' Initiative against the re-authorization of glyphosate.

Therefore in April, the Commission proposed that in the future, EFSA should proactively publish the studies on the internet. Environmental organizations such as the Austrian Global 2000 welcome this, even if they consider the exceptions in the draft for copyrighted material or trade secrets such as manufacturing methods as too vague.

According to the activists, the example of glyphosate proves that the studies have to be published. When a critical scientist, Professor Christopher Portier, was finally able to see the raw data for the assessment of the EU authorities after much deliberation, he found several indications of a cancer potential that EFSA kept quiet about, according to Prof Portier and NGOs supporting him. By then the agency had long since published its assessment and denied everything.

Many environmentalists are also pleased about the draft proposal that the EU Commission should also be allowed to commission studies to review controversial investigations by industry.

Corporations fear political pressure

That's exactly what has prompted resistance from Bayer and its competitors. "Responsibility for commissioning and funding studies should remain fully with the companies," the group wrote in a statement as early as March, just days before the Commission officially released its draft. Bayer's association ECPA justified this on animal welfare grounds, because for further tests even more rats and mice would die in the laboratory.

The companies also demand that EFSA should not disclose the studies until the first approval at member state level of a formulation containing the pesticide active ingredient in question. Before that, they fear "undue political pressure" that could threaten the independence of EFSA.

In addition, ECPA demands that companies, not EFSA, should decide on which information should remain "confidential". And they do not agree with EFSA posting the studies for everyone to see on the internet.

They should not be "published", but only disclosed in a "controlled" manner, according to the lobby organization. Its justification is that competitors could use the expensive data to get approval for their own products.

Federal government still undecided

Greenpeace expert Franziska Achterberg warns: "With [companies retaining] such control, independent scientists could be deterred from using the studies." If the EU were to meet all of industry's demands, companies could continue to keep important information under wraps.

But the coordinator of the EU Parliament for the issue, the CDU member Renate Sommer, has tabled amendments that meet some of the industry's demands. For example, if industry declares that certain information constitutes business secrets, then, according to Sommer, EFSA has to go along with it until proven otherwise. The Commission, on the other hand, wants the burden of proof to lie with manufacturers.

The vote in the Environment Committee on Tuesday is open. Then the plenary session will vote. Subsequently Parliament will negotiate with the Commission and the Council of Member States.

The German government says it has yet to decide whether it supports the early publication of the studies and whether the burden of proof for publication should lie with the manufacturers or not.

Taz's questions remained unanswered

That's not a good sign, says Green member of the German Parliament Harald Ebner: "If the federal government has allegedly 'not completed their consultations' after a year, it is clearly one of the obstacles in this process." And Bayer will continue to lobby to pull out the project's teeth.

But in its public relations work Bayer is presenting itself as transparent. "As a leading life science company, Bayer is aware of its responsibility to communicate transparently about the safety of crop protection products," the company states in its self-promotion.

"In dealing with the public, we rely on dialogue, transparency and cooperation," says the company’s "ethics charter". However, Taz's questions on the subject went unanswered. One of the questions was how the company's statements on transparency can be reconciled with its lobbying against the proposal of the European Commission.

"We make our safety data, which so far could only be viewed by regulatory authorities, publicly available," the company said in December 2017, when it launched its "Transparency Website". At the time, it announced that it would publish its studies on glyphosate on the website. But of course, only on its own terms – and very late, because glyphosate has long been approved.

Source: Taz!5552176/ (German text)

Further information

* ECPA position statement
* ECPA letter
* Europabio position statement
can all be viewed here