EU Report: Precautionary Approach Beneficial to Avoid Environmental Disasters

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–January 30, 2013. A new report, “Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation,” from the European Environment Agency (EEA) concludes that concerns raised by the scientific community on bee death, genetically engineered (GE) food, and nanotechnology support the need for a precautionary approach to public policy. Significantly, the report concludes that the “precautionary principle,” whereby industry and policy makers are advised to take seriously early warnings about potential environmental impacts is “nearly always beneficial.” The report cites some industry efforts to undermine precautionary decision making.

The report features case studies on environmental impacts, such as mercury poisoning, effects on fertility caused by pesticides, and the impact of pharmaceuticals on some ecosystems, and raises questions about the potential wider impacts of GE crops, nanotechnology, nuclear power, and the effect of pesticides on bee populations.

The report lays the blame for numerous environmental crises squarely at the feet of corporations and policy makers who ignore early warnings about environmental impacts. “The historical case studies show that warnings were ignored or sidelined until damage to health and the environment was inevitable,” the EEA said. “In some instances, companies put short-term profits ahead of public safety, either hiding or ignoring the evidence of risk. In others, scientists downplayed risks, sometimes under pressure from vested interests. Such lessons could help avoid harm from emerging technologies.”

The agency also finds that risk assessments for new technologies should be improved and more clearly articulated. “No evidence of harm” has often been misinterpreted to mean ‘evidence of no harm’ when the relevant research was not available,” the report states. Currently, risk assessment approaches underestimate real-world risks and attempt to mitigate adverse impacts with tools that prove insufficient and impractical in real-world scenarios.  For instance, U.S. chemical risk assessment approaches make determinations that the risks are “reasonable” while failing to take into account numerous circumstances and realities that make some people and ecosystems more vulnerable to chemical exposures. EEA  goes a step further to accuse industry of working to undermine regulation by manipulating research and applying pressure on governments for financial benefit. The report states, industry interests have, “deliberately recruited reputable scientists, media experts and politicians to call on if their products were linked to possible hazards. Manufacturing doubt, disregarding scientific evidence of risks and claiming over-regulation appear to be a deliberate strategy for some industry groups and think tanks to undermine precautionary decision-making.”

On GE Foods

The report finds that GE crops provide no direct benefit to consumers, are over-hyped, not necessarily safe and are largely unsuitable for the great majority of the world’s farmers. It argues that “top-down” GE companies manipulate international patent and subsidy systems to gain maximum returns. “Modifying genotypes and capturing them as [intellectual property] through plant variety protection and patents is a far easier means of capturing financial benefits than attempting to [innovate] with cover crops, rotation schedules and composting, farmer-initiated training and education and small scale marketing and credit programs,” the report says.

The report notes, “Evidence is accumulating of inflated benefit claims and of adverse effects. The benefits that may have been overstated are the reduction in pesticide use, the reduced use of more toxic pesticides, higher yields and farmer income. The safety of GE crops is presumed when there is a lack of evidence of harm, as if this were equivalent to evidence of lack of harm, when it clearly is not. Hence many of the safety conclusions … are assumption-based, rather than evidence-based, reasoning.” In fact, GE crops are now being documented as being directly related to increased herbicide use as the rise of weeds resistant to GE technologies increases, leading to the degradation of habitat and ecosystems. Similarly, insect resistance  to GE technologies is also being observed. Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that corn rootworm is now resistant to GE corn infused with a toxin derived from Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, casting doubt on the future viability of GE corn. The growing number of resistant species can potentially rake up economic and environmental costs for farmers and the public and destroy the viability of biological controls that may be used in organic farming systems.

The study does not dismiss GE crops but says they have limited value as presently employed. “Despite more than 30 years of research and development and nearly 20 years of commercialization of GE crops, surprisingly only two traits have been significant in the marketplace – herbicide tolerance and insecticide production.”

On Emerging Nanotechnology

The report points out that nanotechnology development has occurred in the absence of “clear design rules for chemists and materials developers on how to integrate health, safety and environmental concerns into design.” While the emerging area of ‘green nanotechnology’ offers promise for the future with its focus on preventive design, it is important that research on the sustainability of materials is funded at levels significant enough to identify early warnings and potential harms, and that regulatory systems provide incentives for safer and sustainable materials.  Regulators and policy-makers have yet to address many of the shortcomings in legislation, research and development, and limitations in risk assessment. EEA concludes that as a result, “There remains a developmental environment that hinders the adoption of precautionary yet socially and economically responsive strategies in the field of nanotechnology. If left unresolved, this could hamper society’s ability to ensure responsible development of nanotechnologies.”

Recently, EPA announced plans to obtain information on nanoscale materials in pesticide products and to register nanoscale materials as new active pesticide ingredients. The agency stated it will gather information on nanoscale materials present in pesticide products to determine whether the registration of the pesticide product may cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment and human health.

On Emerging Bee Decline

Some European countries suspended neonicotinoid seed‑dressing insecticides, linked to bee decline. In Italy, after the ban, the number of reports of high mortality during spring decreased from 185 cases in 2008 to two cases in 2009. According to the report, evidence of the toxicity of neonicotinoids highlights the major weaknesses of regulatory risk assessment and marketing authorization of pesticides, and particularly neonicotinoids. These insights were recently confirmed by the European Food Safety Authority, which concludedthat neonicotinoids pose unacceptable risks to bees.

The report cautioned that when dealing with new technologies, in this case systemic insecticides, it is important to verify whether the methods already in use for risk assessment are relevant, given the specific new properties and characteristics of new risks. Systemic insecticides endure in the plant, throughout the life of the plant, with residues translocating to pollen and nectar. It also emphasizes the prioritization of the potential causal factors and addresses them separately before assessing potential correlation or synergies among them.

EEA finds that while honey bee losses can be influenced by many factors, this should not become an excuse for not dealing with particular clinical signs and particular causes. It states, “There are some harmful effects which occur only at the level of the system, such as a bee colony, which cannot be predicted from analyzing a single part of the system, such as an individual bee.” The report also notes that all key actors, including beekeepers and experts with relevant research experience, should be properly engaged so that the monitoring and regulatory processes do not become discredited and ineffective. In response, Bayer CropScience critiqued what it claims as bias against “Bayer-funded research” and against research that supports the use of neonicotinoids.

In 2012, beekeepers, Beyond Pesticides, the Center for Food Safety, and Pesticide Action Network North America filed an emergency legal petition with the EPA to suspend the use of clothianidin that is linked to honey bee deaths, urging the agency to adopt safeguards. The petition, which is supported by over one million citizen petition signatures, targets the pesticide for its harmful impacts on honey bees.  The legal petition cites that EPA failed to adequately review relevant data to support the “no unreasonable adverse effects” standards for pollinators. EPA has failed to act.

For more information on bee and pollinator health, see Beyond Pesticides’ Pollinator Protection Program page.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.