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22nd Sep 2019

EU agencies defend research ahead of glyphosate vote

  • Anti-glyphosate protest (Photo: Felix Kindermann / Campact)

The European Food Safety Authority's new conflict of interests policy is "very strict", said Monique Goyens, head of the European umbrella organisation of consumer groups Beuc, on Wednesday (18 October).

However, she suggested that the EU agency should "devote more resources" to double-check what its experts write in their declarations of interests, "and to have sanctions if something is missing".

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Goyens made her remarks at a debate in Brussels, organised by the European Ombudsman, under the theme: EU agencies – How to Manage the Risk of Reputational Damage.

Glyphosate - the 'elephant in the room'

In recent months, the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) and the European Chemicals Agency (Echa) in particular have been the subject of intense scrutiny over the possible renewal of the license for glyphosate, a weedkiller that is used in Roundup, a product of multinational Monsanto.

Because the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans", many non-governmental organisations, activists, and notably left-wing politicians have turned against the proposal to extend the EU licence.

On Thursday (19 October), the European Parliament's environment committee is due to vote on a resolution about glyphosate.

Glyphosate was something of an 'elephant in the room' at the event, with Efsa chief Bernhard Url refraining from using its name and describing it instead as a "plant protection product".

The anti-glyphosate movement has cast doubt over Efsa's and Echa's scientific assessments of glyphosate.

A key issue they have is that the experts employed or hired by the agencies are reportedly not independent.

Sense about science...and scientists

Tracey Brown, who leads a group called Sense about Science, said EU agencies should adapt to a new reality, in which citizens want to have more of a dialogue about what the agencies are doing.

"Agencies used to sit behind the decision-making process of government and sit behind the politics that was the frontline of that," she said.

"Agencies are much more exposed now," she said, noting that it is no longer only "the job of politicians" to have a direct relationship with the public.

Both Efsa and Echa had representatives in the panel, who said they were trying to do just that.

But Efsa's Url also said that some of the criticism that members of the European Parliament have made of his agency are "hypocritical."

He referred to when MEPs tell Efsa they should publish more studies, even though many of them are protected by intellectual property rights, because they are owned by private companies.

"We would be very happy to publish more to get away from this suspicion, as if Efsa does 'secret science'. I'm fed up with this. We're not doing secret science," he said.

But he called it "bizarre" that some MEPs "ask us to break the law" on intellectual property.

"Sorry, we have to apply the law. If you don't like the law, legislate this, change it," he said.

Echa's Malm added that his agency does not own the studies, and cannot publish them without their consent.

This heavy reliance on industry-paid research has been another focal point of criticism, although some speakers noted that there may be no way around this.

'Don't fool people'

The important thing according to Goyens is to be aware that the companies' "first business is to make money".

She noted how the EU has a "narrative" about policy being based on science.

"Don't fool people. Just say [policy based on] industry-funded science."

Tracey Brown also called for more explaining that policy is not purely evidence-based.

"We need a bit more honesty about what the political pressures are on the use of that evidence sometimes."

She criticised a recent survey question at an event of the European Commission's science department, the Joint Research Centre (JRC).

"We had to decide whether politicians should make decisions based on evidence or on values, as though it was binary, as though these things are ever separated."

"It just said to me what you think of yourselves in this world here where you're all so enlightened and out there is just the stupid," said Brown.

She noted the "level of paranoia about the public is huge" and described EU policymakers and JRC scientists as seeing themselves as the "people who understand the science and out there is just the mob, those people who vote for Trump and hate the truth and not interested in reason".

Doubts over EU chemical agency after weedkiller study

Green MEPs and health pressure groups said the European Chemicals Agency could be suffering from conflicts of interest, after it said there wasn't enough evidence to prove that the world's most widely used weedkiller causes cancer.

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