Cities are a great place for social experiments. Benjamin R. Barber

Glyphosat: the Commission, a mere sekretariat!

In the European Commission, they like having the power but not the responsibility. They like pressure even less. As NGOs and certain journalists go after glyphosate, the Commission is muddling through and passing the buck to the Member States without any hesitation.

It is worth recalling that before the Lisbon Treaty, Member States formally possessed the power of implementation (i.e. comitology), but delegated it in practice to the Commission. When the Commission did not have the support of the comitology committee (negative opinion or no opinion, depending on the case), the Council would take back the file and come to a decision by itself. This was the ‘call-back right’.

Under Article 291 of the Lisbon Treaty, Regulation 182/2011 gives the final responsibility to the Commission. Whenever the Appeal Committee fails to give a qualified majority for or against, it is up to the EU executive to take a decision. Or to be more precise: the Commission “may” decide. Thus, it can choose not to take a decision; but basically, the spirit of the text puts the Commission in the driving seat.

In the case of the glyphosate, it is the opposite, as the Commission protects itself using a two-fold strategy: first, amend Regulation 182/2011 to shift responsibility onto Member States, as President Juncker desires. But with the 182/2011 proposal not moving forward, Health Commissioner Andriukaitis has taken out a big umbrella, announcing that the Commission will not be authorising glyphosate without a qualified majority of Member States in favour. The Commission is just taking instructions from the European Council, as if it were a mere secretariat!

But what is the point of EFSA?

Like other health agencies around the world, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has concluded that glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans”. The Commission’s draft proposal to re-authorise glyphosate for 10 years does not contest this view (even though the usual period is 15 years), but it does not fully follow the logic of the opinion. By effectively leaving the final decision to Member States, the Commission is in practice undermining the scientific expertise of one of its main agencies.

EFSA has been criticised a lot in the past, although Ms Geslain-Lanéelle has restored credibility, with a budget of €80 million and a staff of 500 civil servants (not to mention external experts). If the Commission and Member States do not fully follow EFSA opinions without good reasons explained publicly, they cause unnecessary disorder and bad governance while wasting public money.

It’s the dose that makes the poison

On 15 September, the French newspaper Libération published a 4-page article with the title on the front page: “Glyphosate – The enemy of breakfast”. The sub-title, also on page one, says that “Traces of the herbicide, classed as carcinogenic, have been detected notably in cornflakes.” Around the same time, other parts of the media – some considered to be ‘objective’ – accuse EFSA experts of being biased in favour of Monsanto, even though the glyphosate substance has been in the public domain since 2000! There is so much bad faith, so much fake news being spread by zealous minorities who always forget that the dose makes the poison. With glyphosate, the dose is a thousand times below the threshold for toxicity.

Faced with these destabilising manoeuvres to influence opinion, nobody is responding: not the Commission, not EFSA, not the farmers affected by the issue, and not a pesticide industry more worried about the US and China than the European Union. Frankly, there are days when I have doubts not only about Europe but about my own profession. Industrial lobbying is coming more under attack, becoming more defensive; the exact opposite it how it should be.

For more information on this subject, please joint us at the free conference “Maize and Innovation: for better or for worse?” on 27 September 2017 (2-5pm) at the Berlaymont Hotel.

Read more in this debate: Bill McGuire, Massimiliano Vasile, Marc Lipsitch.

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