German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble famously remarked that “elections change nothing”. He was talking about debt and public finance. The European Commission now seems intent on confirming Schäuble’s maxim when it comes to ensuring the protection of public health and the environment. Voting in the European Parliament, public opinion and credible, independent scientific research appear increasingly irrelevant.
An estimated 100,000 workers die each year in the EU from work-related cancers, prompting the ETUC to demand stronger laws and enforcement. Yet we are experiencing a generalized retreat from regulation. Consider the case of glyphosate – the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and the world’s most widely used herbicide – whose authorization for use in the EU is currently up for renewal.
In March last year, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a report which classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” citing evidence from Canada, Sweden and the US. The use of such chemicals in pesticides is forbidden under EU law. Academic research has indicated that glyphosate is also an endocrine disrupter, putting the developing fetus, infants and children at risk. Under EU pesticide law endocrine disrupters should also be prohibited.
Following years of reckless application, glyphosate is everywhere: “in air during spraying, in water, and in food” and “in the blood and urine of agricultural workers, indicating absorption”, according to the IARC. A recent investigation by the Heinrich Böll Foundation (involving over 2,000 Germans in rural and urban areas detected glyphosate in the urine of 99.6% of those tested, in some cases at levels 42 times higher than what is legally permissible for drinking water.
In view of the WHO’s careful review of the evidence – explicit acknowledgment of the importance of independent research on the impact of pesticides on human health and the food chain in a field long dominated by pesticide manufacturers – the precautionary principle in EU law should alone be sufficient to keep glyphosate out of our food and our bodies.
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Monsanto immediately denounced the WHO report, but they are not the only company concerned. Glyphosate is used in some 750 commercial products; virtually every significant agrichemical company sells a glyphosate formulation. Lobbyists swung into action, headed up by the industry’s Glyphosate Task Force. In November 2015, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) – on the basis of unpublished reports prepared by the industry for Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment – officially rejected the IARC’s conclusions, blithely dismissed the adverse effects reported in clinical and independent laboratory studies and declared that glyphosate poses ‘no carcinogenic hazard for humans’ or any other health hazard. A preliminary finding by the US Environmental Protection Agency on similar lines appears now to have been suspended.
The Commission has proposed on this basis renewing the approval of glyphosate for the maximum period of 15 years and increasing the permissible residue limits in food, while refusing to disclose the evidence on which EFSA based its positive recommendation on grounds of ‘commercial secrecy’. Independent scientists including some of those who contributed to the WHO report found EFSA’s support for continued authorization to be unsupported by the evidence.
A vote for renewed authorization at a March 8 meeting of the EU’s Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed was only blocked when Italy joined with France, the Netherlands and Sweden to force postponement of the anticipated green light. On March 22, the EP’s Committee on Environment, Food Safety & Public Health (ENVI) objected to reauthorization, demanded a moratorium on glyphosate use and called on the Commission and EFSA to “immediately disclose all the scientific evidence that has been a basis for the positive classification of glyphosate and the proposed re-authorisation.” The (non-binding) motion was ignored.
On April 13, the EP overwhelmingly approved a resolution declaring that the Commission had failed to act to ensure a high level of protection of human health and the environment and to implement the precautionary principle as well as exceeding its statutory powers. Despite an impressive inventory of reasons for halting glyphosate use, the resolution recommended reauthorization for a 7-year period, with important restrictions and provisions for reversing authorization under specified conditions.
On April 26, however, health and food safety commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis stated that the Commission proposed to reauthorize glyphosate for ten years without restrictions. Pavel Poc, the Czech Social Democrat who authored the parliamentary resolution, condemned the Commission for “totally ignoring European citizens” and highlighted the urgent need for greater democracy, transparency and accountability. In a letter to supporters of the campaign to block reauthorization, Poc deplored the Parliament’s inability to further influence the Commission’s decision.
That is precisely the point: in today’s EU, voting apparently changes nothing. There are no democratic mechanisms in place to stop the Commission from cutting a deal with the corporate agrochemical giants which would keep Europe locked into the deadly spiral of increasing pesticide applications for another decade.
The rush to glyphosate renewal is part and parcel of the EU’s general retreat from regulation. While regulatory retreat has intensified under the pressure of TTIP and CETA and the push to dismantle ‘non-tariff barriers to trade” in the name of ‘regulatory harmonization’, it is also a home-grown process driven by European corporations with their own agenda. Trade agreements create nothing ex nihilo: they merely codify existing trends and practices.
The European Trade Union Institute has pointedly criticized the EU’s ‘REFIT’ program for inaction on setting exposure limits for the workplace carcinogens that expose 30 million workers to unacceptable risk and claim up to 100,000 lives annually. EU action on the endocrine disrupters which menace worker and public health is seriously stalled. Since 2013, the EFSA has been pushing for greater food industry self-regulation such as allowing the use of peracetic acid in beef and poultry production. The chlorine chickens which have entered into anti–TTIP iconography may eventually be served up to European consumers as made in the EU, not US imports
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Barbed wire border fences, rising inequality and savage austerity policies are the most visible but by no means the only indicators of the lamentable state of European democracy. Regulation in the public interest to protect workers, consumers and the environment is a vital function of any democracy. The resilience and the capacity of the institutions charged with that regulation is a benchmark of democracy’s health. A society whose governing institutions serenely surrender our health, our environment and the workers who help feed us to corporate agribusiness is in trouble.
The sources of democratic corrosion in the EU are many, including the usurpation of quintessentially political functions by unaccountable, ostensibly ‘neutral’, non-political ‘technical’ bodies like the EFSA and their insulation from effective democratic oversight. Nothing is more political than food, which involves, or should involve, choices about what we produce and how we produce it, bearing in mind that food-workers are in the frontline of exposure to the hazards which consumers experience as residues.
Peter Rossman is Director of Communications and Campaigns with the International Union of Foodworkers, an international trade union federation based in Geneva. He writes in a personal capacity.