Inconsistent approach explains failure to ban glyphosate – pesticide expert Dr Martin Dermine
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has defended its work on glyphosate against criticism by arguing that the same critics praise its work on neonicotinoid insecticides. An EFSA opinion states that the use of neonicotinoids endangers bees – an opinion that led to a ban. But regarding the herbicide active ingredient glyphosate, EFSA stated that the chemical does not pose a risk to human or animal health – an opinion that led to its remaining on the market. This is in spite of the view of the cancer agency IARC that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen.
At a Green group hearing on pesticides on 5 September in the European Parliament, Dr Martin Dermine of Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe explained that the discrepancy in outcome was due to the fact that EFSA had used independent studies on neonicotinoids but disregarded them on glyphosate.
Dr Dermine said that "nearly all" studies from the independent peer-reviewed literature on glyphosate were discarded, whereas on neonicotinoids, such studies were "very much used by EFSA" despite the fact that they were not done according to Good Laboratory Practice, a set of rules applied to industry studies carried out for regulatory purposes but generally not used by academic researchers.
Good Laboratory Practice is not a mark of scientific excellence but a set of minimum standards that industry must meet in its safety tests on its own products, that were imposed by regulators in response to serious and widespread industry fraud in the safety testing of pesticides, including glyphosate, in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet these rules have often been used by EFSA and other regulatory agencies to exclude independent studies.
He added that there was "no reason" for this disparity in approach by EFSA. But however it has come about, the fact that EFSA’s experts have been more open to non-industry studies in the case of neonicotinoids cannot be used to excuse the agency's doing the exact opposite in the case of glyphosate.
The Greens organised the hearing as a complementary event to the meetings of the EU Parliament's PEST Committee. The PEST Committee was formed by MEPs in the wake of the EU's controversial approval of glyphosate in order to examine the process leading to the approval and the EU's approach to assessing pesticides in general.
PEST Committee may have lost its way
Unfortunately for those who had high hopes for the outcome of the PEST Committee's investigations, the committee appears to have taken a turn away from its intended role as a critical force. This is suggested by the Greens' promotion of their hearing as complementary to the PEST Committee meetings due to the latter's "shortcomings".
During the press conference on the hearing, Belgian Green MEP Bart Staes, a co-rapporteur to the PEST Committee, said that the Greens organised the event because they felt that the committee "lacked quite a lot of expertise and knowledge of experts, professors, and scientists on the impact of pesticides on the environment and human health". Staes had wanted these people's contributions to feed into the report that he will help to write on the PEST Committee findings.
Mr Staes explained that "there is some blocking" by "the more conservative" Parliamentary groups involved in the PEST Committee, "which means we don't always end up with balanced panels". He added that the Green, GUE and S&D groups would request speakers who have a critical outlook, but "it would be difficult to get them on board". For example, the progressive MEPs had wanted a hearing on the impact of pesticides on the environment, but that proved to be "a very tricky exercise". Experts from traditionally pro-pesticide countries like Australia and from the US EPA had been invited, but experts from the state of California, which recently listed glyphosate as a carcinogen, had been blocked from speaking. Mr Staes added that after these events, the Greens decided to have their own additional hearing to discuss "issues such as environment and public health". He hopes to feed the extra information gained into the amendments to the PEST Committee report.
The French Green MEP Michèle Rivasi confirmed that they had experienced "huge difficulties" getting independent experts, including those from NGOs, to speak at the PEST Committee hearings. She said that too many people from institutions were invited, who are unwilling to criticise one another.
Leading NGO on pesticides excluded from Pest Committee
PAN's Dr Martin Dermine said at the hearing that PAN was never invited by the PEST Committee to speak, even though they are the only EU group working solely on pesticides.
Dr Dermine gave a comprehensive overview of the problems with the EU's pesticide assessment processes.
He said several reviews of EU pesticide regulations were in progress, including the REFIT project of DG SANTE. REFIT is looking at whether certain EU laws, including the pesticide law, are fit for purpose. Dr Dermine said the Commission is biasing the process towards business interests and downplaying human health and the environment, even though the latter issues are named as the highest priority in the EU pesticide law. He called the REFIT process "a scandal" and added that only 11% of the questions from the Commission to the consultant producing the report were to do with human health and the environment. The others favour the business interests of industry.
Dr Dermine referred to the pesticide law's cut-off criteria, whereby pesticides known to cause cancer, disrupt hormones, damage DNA or harm reproduction must be automatically banned. These criteria, he said, are not implemented, with only one pesticide being banned under them despite the fact that many meet the criteria.
He also criticised the fact that there was often no publicly available information on the position of individual member states on a pesticide authorisation. It is the votes of these member states within a committee that decide whether a pesticide is to be approved.
Dr Dermine criticised the EU's Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) for starting its report on pesticide authorisation processes from the assumption that pesticides are necessary in agriculture, in spite of the existence of evidence to the contrary and the fact that the majority of farmers around the globe do not use them.
Dr Dermine addressed what he sees as the naivete of regulators, stating that most are convinced that the pesticide industry is honest and does not manipulate science. He said that events regarding glyphosate in the US show that industry should not be allowed to carry out their own tests that lead to the authorisation of their products: "It's a complete conflict of interest." He said that a better system would be for the pesticidal substance to be given to EFSA along with the (industry-provided) money and for EFSA to carry out the entire testing and assessment processing, using independent contract laboratories. He added, "Nothing prevents this process being put in place."
Dr Dermine said that often the people who evaluate pesticides, not so much at the EU level but certainly in the member states, have ties to industry – for example, they work for industry as consultants. He said that strict punishments should be applied for people who do not respect the rules.
He added that some methods for the tests done on pesticides to support approval are very old and are co-written by scientists with ties to industry. Therefore, he said, we need strong conflict of interest rules and all current test methods should be reviewed by independent experts. He referred to a report showing that on some EFSA panels, nearly half the experts have ties with industry.
Dr Dermine said that independent experts should be sought out to work for EFSA and that they should be fairly compensated for their time.