Saturday

19th Jun 2021

Opinion

What the EU public think of EU pesticide regulation

  • Should the outcome of the EU process be a renewed approval of glyphosate, there is a high risk that its legitimacy will be rejected by a large proportion of the European public (Photo: Aqua Mechanical)

Glyphosate, the active substance in Bayer/Monsanto's Roundup and the world's most widely-used herbicide, was classified in 2015 as a "probable human carcinogen" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), leading to large numbers of lawsuits and high damage awards to affected users in US courts.

In the EU, glyphosate's re-authorisation by the European Commission in 2017 for an abbreviated five-year period was hotly-contested, triggering broad public distrust in the adequacy of the current European regulatory framework to ensure a high level of protection for public health and the environment.

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The ensuing policy debate on how to reform EU pesticide regulation has identified key challenges and produced important reform proposals.

While some reforms have been implemented and others are under discussion, little is known about what the public thinks of these reforms, and whether they could increase public support for both EU pesticides regulation and individual authorisation decisions.

The issue of public support is crucial for several reasons.

Ticking clock

First, the current glyphosate authorisation expires in 2022 and any future EU decision on re-authorisation would be undermined by the absence of public trust and acceptance of the decision-making process.

Second, through its Green Deal the EU seeks a transition towards sustainable agriculture.

The European Commission has recently committed to propose measures to reduce "the risk and use of pesticides by 50 percent" by 2030, as part of its Farm to Fork Strategy for sustainable food systems. Public support is crucial for future EU measures in this field.

Yet, as surveys (including our own) show, citizens' concerns about the negative effects of pesticides on human health and the environment have increased over the past decade, while satisfaction with EU and national regulation has declined.

In a recent policy report from the Amsterdam Centre for European Studies (ACES), we assess whether and how specific reforms to decision-making procedures could impact public support for EU pesticides regulation, including acceptance of authorisation decisions on controversial substances such as glyphosate.

To do so, we conducted a pair of linked online survey experiments on public attitudes toward reform of EU pesticides regulation in June 2020 among a representative sample of the adult population in six member states (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden).

What does EU public think?

Our results show that citizens have strong views about which reforms to decision-making procedures should be adopted to improve EU pesticides regulation.

Foremost among these is the introduction of systematic post-authorisation monitoring and review, with the possibility of removing the pesticide from the market in the case of unexpected negative effects, which increases respondents' probability of support for a proposed reform package by 22.1 percent.

The second most strongly-supported reform is the inclusion in authorisation decisions of all relevant scientific studies or only studies conducted by an independent public body, each of which increases respondents' support for a proposed decision-making procedure by more than 15 percent, relative to reliance only on studies conducted on behalf of the manufacturer.

A third reform proposal that attracts substantial public approval is consideration in pesticides authorisation decisions of effects on small and organic farmers (in addition to those on human health and the environment), which increases the likelihood of support among respondents by 7.7 percent.

(By contrast, our respondents were less concerned about whether the authorisation of pesticides takes place at the national or EU level.)

Public support is strongest for taking authorisation decisions at a combination of EU and national levels – the status quo – which increases the likelihood of approval of a proposed policy package by 6.1 percent relative to decision making at the national level alone and 6.6 percent relative to the EU-level only.

Thus, at least in this policy field, EU citizens appear to care more about how decisions are taken than about where: about the substance of the regulatory governance process itself rather than the issue of more Europe or less Europe.

The most popular combination of reforms (comprising systematic post-authorization monitoring and review, inclusion of all relevant scientific studies, consideration of effects on small and organic farmers, and decisions taken jointly at EU and national levels) attracts broad support among respondents to our survey of 72.3 percent (falling to 64.7 percent if it would lead to an increase of three percent in food prices).

But if the EU adopted these proposed regulatory governance reforms, would citizens be more prepared to accept pesticide authorisation decisions - even when they run counter to their substantive preferences, for example in cases such as glyphosate?

The results of our second experiment clearly demonstrate that the answer is Yes.

Respondents' odds of accepting a hypothetical glyphosate authorisation decision opposed to their prior expressed preferences are more than twice as high when it is taken under a decision-making procedure they support, a probability which increases along with the strength of their support for the proposed procedure.

Even for opponents of glyphosate, who are less likely to accept a hypothetical outcome counter to their prior expressed preferences, an authorisation decision taken under a procedure they support reduces the probability of rejection by 40 percent.

Our study therefore provides robust evidence that the adoption of proposed reforms preferred by citizens could not only help to rebuild public support for EU pesticides regulation, but also enhance acceptance of controversial authorisation decisions.

The EU reauthorisation process for glyphosate, on which a decision must be taken in 2022, has already begun.

This decision will be taken under the same unreformed procedures as the previous controversial 2017 reauthorisation.

These procedures, as our survey shows, do not command the confidence of EU citizens.

Should the outcome of this process be a renewed approval of glyphosate, there is thus a high risk that its legitimacy will be rejected by a large proportion of the European public.

Author bio

Jonathan Zeitlin is distinguished faculty professor of public policy and governance at the University of Amsterdam, and all contributors are the five authors of the report Reforming EU Pesticides Regulation, Rebuilding Public Support: Evidence from Survey Experiments in Six Member States from the Amsterdam Centre for European Studies.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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