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Pesticides: Does the EU let industry write its own rules?

Dave Keating
February 13, 2018

An NGO says 90 percent of EU tests determining which pesticides are safe come from the industry. But critics say the campaigners are distorting data to whip up panic.

Glyphosat Symbolbild
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

The European Union has some of the most stringent laws in the world regulating pesticides. Unlike in other systems where regulators have to prove harm, plant protection products have to demonstrate they are safe in order to be sold in the EU. 

But even with these strict controls in place, some environmentalists say harmful chemicals are sliding in under the radar because of inadequate tests.

A new report from the environmental group Pesticide Action Network says 90 percent of pesticide authorization tests conducted by the EU are either designed by the pesticide industry itself, or pushed by it.

And in more than two-thirds of tests, the methods came directly from the United States, where pesticide regulations are more lax than in Europe.

Suspect tests

Regulating pesticides in the EU – one of the most controversial areas of EU law with environmental campaigners – is a task of European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), based in Parma, Italy.

The EFSA uses 12 pesticide risk-assessment methods to determine whether, and how, these substances can be used in the EU. According to the PAN report, 11 of these were either developed or promoted by the pesticide industry.

Protests following the EU's decision to re-authorize glyphosate in November 2017
Protests followed the EU's decision to re-authorize glyphosate in November 2017Image: DW/Bernd Riegert

In other words, only one of the tests puts the industry under real scrutiny, according to the PAN report.

"The report concludes that the EU Commission and EFSA use heavily flawed risk assessment methods for their decisions on pesticides, methods designed or promoted by industry," PAN's Hans Muilerman says.

Muilerman says this allows harmful effects observed in animal safety studies to be "swept under the carpet." For example, under these methods tumors seen in test animals are deemed irrelevant to humans, and harmful pesticide residues in groundwater acceptable.

"The methods are designed to prevent a ban of harmful pesticides and result in lowering of the protection of the public and the environment," Muilerman says.

Old allegations

The EFSA counters that PAN's definition of tests "designed or promoted by industry" is subjective.

The EFSA says its own testing methods are "defined, validated and used by" other organizations such as the World Health Organization, the OECD, and the European Chemicals Agency.

"Most elements from the report are not new and repurpose unsubstantiated allegations, which EFSA has rebutted on numerous occasions," an EFSA spokesperson told DW. "PAN Europe appears to categorize any expert or organization that does not share its views as being influenced or funded by industry. This is a sweeping generalization that does not bear any scrutiny."

Avaaz campaigner dress as crop-sprayers at a protest against glyphosate outside the European Commission Glyphosat
Avaaz campaigners dressed as crop-sprayers at a protest against glyphosate outside the European CommissionImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Thys

He also said that while PEN is extremely critical of the EFSA's Pesticide Panel and its opinions, it has also cited their reports as independent when the findings suit them.

In other words, simply because the pesticides industry supports a certain type of test, doesn't mean they have designed it or are pushing it, and doesn't mean that it is an inadequate assessment.

Special committee

Despite the rebuttals, accusations of improper closeness between EU regulators and the pesticides industry have been floating for many years. Last week, members of the European Parliament voted to set up a special committee to look into the influence of crop-protection companies over the EU authorization process.

The new committee – called "PEST" – will examine the authorization process as a whole. But it is understood to be largely in response to the EU's controversial decision to re-authorize the herbicide glyphosate last year. The decision, taken by national governments, was against the advice of the parliament, which has called for the herbicide to be completely banned within five years.

The European Commission has said more transparency in the authorization process will help dampen suspicion. Last month it launched a consultation looking into ways the process can be made more public.