EU Food Safety Legislation is Poison

Richard Tren | 22 Jan 2009
Business Day (South Africa)
The European Parliament recently 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 worsen food scarcities and disease, not just in Europe but in the developing world as well.

Make no mistake: 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 solely concerned with whether a pesticide has proven hazardous in a lab setting. What matters is how the pesticide is used and how diluted the active ingredient is.

Many common foods actually contain some potentially hazardous chemicals. For example, the chocolate frosting in cupcakes contains an acidic substance called tanni. And if you enjoy your cupcake with a cup of coffee, you will ingest hundreds of known carcinogens. Yet the mere presence of toxicity isn't what's important. As the 16th-century physician Paracelsus famously remarked: "It's the dose that makes the poison."

As they learn more about science and the world around us, one would have hoped European Union (EU) policy makers would pass regulations that create greater certainty and predictability. Unfortunately, with this move, EU policy makers have passed regulations that will increase uncertainty. For instance, substances could be banned if they are thought to be endocrine disrupters, 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% of chemicals under review could be banned. The Swedish government now estimates that 23 chemicals will be delisted. 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. One British environmental consulting firm estimates it would cause a drop in overall EU food production of at least 25%.

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

Though curable and preventable, malaria is responsible for about 500-million illnesses and 1-million deaths a 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 the fight against the disease.

Making matters worse, mosquitoes can often develop resistance to insecticides. Reducing the number of available chemicals would make resistant mosquitoes a much bigger problem for those fighting the disease.

The legislation would also shrink the market for insecticides, increasing product prices.

The market for public-health insecticides is hardly thriving. Over the past 20 years, the cost of developing pesticides has risen 500%. The Boston Consulting Group estimates that it takes 10 years and roughly $400m to bring a new chemical to market.

The EU legislation would make companies less willing to invest in new insecticides given the murkiness of the regulations and the high risk that they'd eventually be banned.

The bottom line is that these regulations will make the pesticides necessary to keep deadly diseases at bay less available and more expensive. And they'll put the lives of millions in poor countries in danger.

Pesticide safety is a critical issue that necessitates evidence-based scientific evaluation. Before member states approve the legislation, officials must collect hard data on its likely effects at home and around the world.