Europe has taken two steps backwards over food safety

Richard Tren | 19 Jan 2009
Daily Nation
On Tuesday last week, the European Parliament approved new regulations that may effectively ban a number of chemicals used in popular pesticides.

Once enacted, several products that help keep European produce free of pests and disease will be taken off the market. This will exacerbate food scarcities and disease, not just in Europe but in the developing world as well.

This is a victory for the environmental lobby and a defeat of sound science. Sensible regulations should evaluate the risks posed by chemicals to humans and the environment based on rigorous and sound scientific evidence.

Regulators shouldn't be concerned with whether a pesticide has proven hazardous in a lab setting. What matters is how the pesticide is actually used and how diluted the active ingredient is.

Many common foods actually contain some potential hazardous chemicals. For example, the chocolate frosting in holiday cupcakes contains an acidic substance called tannin. And if you enjoy your cup cake with a cup of coffee, you will be ingesting hundreds of known carcinogens.

Yet the mere presence of toxicity isn't what's important. As the 16th-century physician Paracelsus remarked, "It's the dose that makes the poison."

As they learn more about science and the world around us, one would have hoped EU policy-makers would pass regulations that create greater certainty. Unfortunately, with this move, EU policymakers have passed regulations that will increase uncertainty.

For instance, substances could be banned if they are thought to be endocrine disruptors, yet there is no agreed upon definition of what endocrine disruption is. The pesticide regulations are thus open to interpretation and bias.

Initial assessments of earlier versions of this legislation concluded that up to 85 per cent of chemicals under review could be banned. The Swedish Government now estimates that 23 chemicals will be de-listed. But uncertainty prevails, as no rigorous, EU-wide assessment of the legislation has been undertaken.

Even a conservative implementation of the new rules would increase the prevalence of food-borne pests and cause the food supply to decrease.

A British environmental consultancy estimates it would cause a drop in overall EU food production of at least 25 per cent, raising food prices and putting an enormous burden on low-income Europeans.

In the developing world, the measure would not only hurt food production and trade with Europe- - it would also harm the fight against malaria.

Though curable and preventable, malaria is currently responsible for roughly 500 million illnesses and one million deaths per year. In Africa, a child dies every 30 seconds from the disease.

Malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes. Some of the chemicals that the EU proposal would ban are essential in fighting the disease.

To make the matter worse, mosquitoes can often develop resistance to insecticides. Reducing the number of available chemicals would make resistant mosquitoes a much bigger problem.

Consider what happened with DDT, a highly-effective insecticide banned by the EU. Many developing countries have stopped using DDT -- even though it is only sprayed indoors and not on crops -- for fear that their agricultural exports will not be allowed in Europe.

These new rules could have a similar effect, spurring struggling African nations to stop using effective anti-malaria insecticides to avoid losing valuable European trading partners. The legislation would also shrink the market for insecticides, increasing product prices. This market is hardly thriving. Over the past 20 years, the cost of developing pesticides has risen by 500 per cent.

The Boston Consulting Group estimates that it takes 10 years and $400 million to bring a new chemical to market. The EU legislation would make companies less willing to invest in new insecticides.

These regulatory reforms pose such a substantial threat to the developing world that over 160 leading public health scientists have signed a protest petition circulated by my organisation, Africa Fighting Malaria.

The bottom line is that these regulations will make the pesticides necessary to keep deadly diseases less available and more expensive.