PEST in danger of aggravating glyphosate controversy

Earlier this year, the European Parliament created PEST, a temporary committee on pesticides, to try and draw a line under the controversy surrounding the EU’s approval process for the widely used herbicide glyphosate. However, the latest meeting of PEST, which took place earlier this month, may have stirred up even more drama.

This renewed controversy has arisen primarily due to the alleged use of the committee as a point-scoring platform in the run-up to next year’s elections, as well as its decision to seek counsel from Christopher Portier— a scientist who was one of the major points of contention in the original scandal. At a time when the glyphosate controversy has only inflamed the EU’s reputation as an unwieldy decision maker, the committee’s focus and choice of witnesses risks only making matters worse.

Clearing up a quagmire

The initial controversy surrounding glyphosate erupted after the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) published a report in July 2015 concluding that the substance was “probably carcinogenic.” This complicated what would otherwise have been a straightforward renewal of the herbicide’s license in Europe, resulting in much hand-wringing and foot-dragging from the bloc’s member states. The decision to renew glyphosate’s license for a reduced term of five years was finally reached in late 2017, after an unexpected about-face from Germany which prompted public backlash.

A petition of well over 1 million signatures was delivered to the Commission – half of them German – and the body duly responded by creating a dedicated Special Committee, PEST. Composed of 30 MEPs from a wide range of parties and backgrounds, PEST has been given a nine-month mandate to deliver its verdict on the EU’s approval process for pesticides. Although the committee’s conclusions will have no legal sway, they are expected to be afforded weighty consideration given that several members of the taskforce are already qualified experts in the field.

Sticking to the task at hand

The committee’s chief responsibility is to review the various processes by which pesticides are reviewed and given the green light for use within the bloc. At the time, the EU agencies which cleared glyphosate had been subject to scrutiny for their reliance on industry-funded research, and PEST is expected to provide clarity and transparency on the working methods of the bodies in question. Above all, it has been tasked with applying a cold, critical eye to a subject that has become highly politicized. There are rumblings, however, that the committee might make the situation even worse.

Indeed, with the European elections on the horizon in 2019, committee members might be tempted to become sidetracked by wider arguments surrounding the pros and cons of modern agricultural methods rather than focusing on the task at hand. Such a pitfall was highlighted by a British MEP on the committee, Anthea McIntyre, who flagged the political significance of PEST’s creation and hinted that it may be used by certain contributors to bang the drum for their own views on the subject and score cheap political points.

Impartial testimony?

PEST has also exposed itself to criticism through its choice of industry expert witnesses— most notably at the latest meeting, when it called upon the scientist Chris Portier to act as a private consultant on the subject. Portier, among the most controversial figures involved in the glyphosate saga, was engaged to serve in the similar role of invited specialist on the IARC monograph in question. All well and good – but it later emerged that Portier has ties to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a US-based environmental group with known anti-pesticide opinions. Such a connection was apparently not deemed a conflict of interest by IARC.

Even more concerning, fresh stories recently surfaced that Portier was paid $160,000 by Lundy & Lundy, an American law firm representing cancer patients who were suing Monsanto over exposure to glyphosate. The sum was apparently compensation for “advisory services” to the law firm, which suspiciously took place at almost exactly the same time as Portier’s involvement in the IARC monograph. When questioned about the transaction, Portier insisted that his input into the IARC study was not influenced by financial gain. Despite this denial, even calling Portier as a witness runs the risk of drawing accusations of bias and muddying the waters even further.

EU not doing itself any favors

After coming under heavy fire for its decision to approve glyphosate for a further five years, it’s only right that the EU should have created PEST – not only to cover its own back, but also to clear up once and for all the various misunderstandings surrounding the wider chemical approval process. However, vagueness over the committee’s exact utility, suggestions that it may be being manipulated for political gains and the questionable integrity of its chosen witnesses do nothing to help the bloc assuage public fears over the validity of the methods it uses.

In its rush to clear its own name and hear both sides of the story, the committee is in real danger of going too far the other way by exposing itself to unreliable sources and a distorted version of events. Since the committee has a limited lifespan, it must also be careful not to become distracted by political flag-waving and do its utmost to stick to its objectives. Failure to do either will result in the committee exacerbating the knots in the very tangle of uncertainties it was meant to unpick – only causing further damage to already wavering public trust in the EU’s decision-making capabilities.


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