Day: July 22, 2022

EPA Ignores the Pleas of Farmers on Crop Protection

The Environmental Protection Agency isn’t listening to farmers and its own scientific panel.

In a move that is causing American farmers significant distress, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is effectively banning the use of the herbicide atrazine. 

The agency is lowering the so-called concentration equivalent level of concern (CE-LOC) to 3.4 ppb (parts per billion), making the substance unusable on farms across the country. The agency has thus undone an authorization dating back to 2016, going back to Obama-era rules, and reopening a political battle that implicates courts and regulators to do the strategic bidding for Washington.

Behind the definition of the concentration level of crop protection products and the associated court battles lies the fact that not even agriculture is spared by the partisan approach of lawmakers. Be it atrazine or the controversy surrounding glyphosate—environmental activists aim to phase out any herbicide, fungicide, or insecticide and push for an all-organic farming model. If the motivation for these bans were justified by a genuine concern for consumer health, they could be excused, but they appear to be associated with a manic opposition to modern farming, paired with a sinister belief in conspiracy theories.

Atrazine became popularly known through serial conspiracy peddler Alex Jones, who claimed that it was “turning the frogs gay,” while relying on one non-peer-reviewed and debunked study by a researcher named Tyrone Hayes from twenty years ago. The researcher had falsely claimed that the chemical created hermaphrodite frogs and altered their sexual orientation. Reviews by the EPA, German, and Australian regulators all found no evidence for the “gay frogs” premise. When researchers in Japan replicated Hayes’ experiment, they found no evidence either.

It wasn’t just fringe conspiracy theorists who used Hayes’ paper to claim that dark forces were attempting to kill masculinity by poisoning the drinking water—environmental groups also used the misleading conclusions. Beyond Pesticides, a group arguing for atrazine to be banned, writes: “EPA has long known about triazine’s threats to wildlife, including its ability to chemically castrate male frogs. However, the agency has consistently defended the chemical and sat by while independent researchers like Tyrone Hayes, PhD, who conducted seminal research on atrazine’s endocrine-disrupting properties, are pilloried by chemical industry propaganda.”

For consumers, the case for farmers being able to use adequate crop protection is better than just “this won’t harm you.” In fact, there are good reasons why atrazine, after glyphosate, remains the second most used herbicide in the United States. Consumers save $4.3 to almost $6.2 billionannually because the use of the product lowers prices for dairy products, eggs, and meat. 

Atrazine is used on twenty-four million acres of corn, sorghum, and sugarcane (for the first two, the United States is the world’s largest exporter). Without it, corn farmers would lose an estimated $3.1 to $4.6 billion per year, which would increase food insecurity and prices at a time when American consumers can afford it the least. Let’s not forget that compared to Europe, Americans spend a lot less on food: in 2020, Americans spent 5 percent of their disposable income on groceries, compared to 8.7 percent in Ireland (the lowest in the EU), 10.8 percent in Germany, 12 percent in Sweden, 17 percent in Hungary, and 25 percent in Romania.

A ban would also have environmental implications. The use of herbicides reduces the need for diesel-fueled tillage and avoids soil erosion. In practice, this means that less carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, and wildlife—such as birds—is less often disturbed by farmers passing over their fields. It also makes the farming system more efficient: all it takes to see that is to compare the American food model with the African, where pesticide availability is low and where farmers lose 40-100 percent of their crops. Herbicides essentially guarantee that we produce more with less and guarantee that we maintain affordable and available food.

The reasoning for the ban is based, just as with the example of Tyrone Hayes, on bad science. In fact, the Science Advisory Panel (SAP) of the EPA has alerted its own administrators to the fact that most of the studies it uses to argue for a ban “have weaknesses in their design” which “render interpreting their results and scoring them for “effects” or “no effect” difficult and subjective.” Why is the EPA not listening to its own scientists?

Farmers have also fired back at the EPA, calling its statements “untrue,” and saying that its new concentration level is “based on shaky scientific evidence derived through a process that has not been transparent.” They continue by arguing that atrazine is essential for carbon sequestration, essentially telling the EPA that its decision will lead to higher carbon dioxide emissions over time.

The EPA isn’t listening to farmers and its own scientific panel. Maybe it will reconsider once consumers feel the effect of a decision that will severely affect food prices.

Originally published here

The conflict between government agencies regarding PFAS

As discussed by the Star Tribune’s June 27 editorial (“Needed action on ‘forever chemicals'”), the Environmental Protection Agency is seeking to create clean drinking water thresholds on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Given the history of egregious cases of chemical dumping, like what was done by Dupont, popularized by the film “Dark Waters” with Mark Ruffalo, one can see why the EPA is taking such an approach to how PFAS are regulated in the United States.

Strangely enough though, the EPA’s approach to PFAS is at odds with another government body, the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA, the regulatory body responsible for ensuring that pharmaceuticals and medical devices work and that their health benefits outweigh their known risks, has continuously approved both drugs and devices that contain PFAS. Most don’t know that the medical community is heavily reliant on PFAS products. Take, for example, medical implants like vascular grafts, stent grafts, surgical meshes, catheter tubes/wire and heart patches. It is estimated that 8% to 10% of Americans have implantable medical devices, many of which rely on PFAS and are approved by the FDA. In fact, the implantable medical-devices market, valued at $72.2 billion, is expected to grow significantly as the American population continues to get older.

Drugs containing PFAS and conditions with treatments that introduce the presence of PFAS include, but are not limited to, tachyarrhythmias (flecainide), antidepressants (fluoxetine), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (celecoxib), antibiotics (levofloxacin), rheumatoid arthritis therapeutics (leflunomide), cholesterol-lowering agents (atorvastin) and even COVID-19 antivirals such as Paxlovid.

For all of those drugs and devices, the notoriously overcautious FDA has clearly stated that whatever PFAS exposure exists with these products, they are safe to the point where the benefits far outweigh the risks. Simply put, the presence of PFAS for these drugs and devices passes a safety check and a cost-benefit analysis.

What we have here is two government agencies taking drastically different approaches to the issue of PFAS. On one hand, the FDA is doing a cost-benefit analysis and approving the use of PFAS across the medical sector, while the EPA is seeking to enact drinking water standards that are mutually exclusive to the FDA’s conclusions.

So how should regulators proceed given that the left hand and right hand of the federal government appear to be at odds with each other? One key step forward would be to individually assess each chemical within the PFAS umbrella, identify where hazards exist and calculate where Americans are actually at risk — with “risk” being the hazard present multiplied by the exposure levels.

After doing so, regulators should focus on ensuring proper production practices to avoid instances of dumping, and severely punish those companies caught being reckless in the production or disposal process. That is the approach that can keep Americans safe and their drinking water clean, without running the risk of having the regulatory system be so stringent that production ceases and American patients are left without the lifesaving drugs and devices they need.

Luckily, some voices of reason have emerged in Congress, like that of Rep. Larry Buschon of Indiana. As a heart surgeon by trade, he has rightfully pointed out that the heavy-handed approach would put lifesaving medical technologies at risk. Hopefully, more will listen, and the federal government, in coordination with state regulators, can both limit PFAS exposure where it is dangerous and allow for it to continue to be used where safe.

Originally published here

Can Joe Biden restore food trade talks with Europe?

For the EU, former President Donald Trump’s international policy was seen as a major regression for global trade policy. When former EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker signed the EU-Japan trade deal in 2018 — abolishing virtually all tariffs — Europe sold the move as being in significant contrast to the protectionism taken in the United States. That said, many EU member states prefer consumers only to buy European when it comes to food, even at the expense of major trade deals.

When Europe and the United States tripped up on the conclusion of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it wasn’t because of the Obama administration at the time. Trade deals need to be approved by national parliaments, and the opposition of the Wallonian parliament (Southern Belgium) prevented the accord from being signed. Since then, more EU member countries have joined the protectionist club. France and Ireland have shown fierce opposition to trade between the EU and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, over the competition that would ultimately arise for their national beef producers.

One year ago, U.S Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack explained to the European Parliament in a virtual appearance that the differences in how Europe and the United States treat crop protection and genetic engineering are an obstacle to the two blocs’ trading. The EU seeks to halve its pesticide use by 2030, with its soon-to-be-released Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD), and it plans to continue to outlaw genetic engineering technology based on legislation going back to 2001. 

However, the ambitious agriculture reforms are now being questioned by its own member nations: Central and Eastern European countries have claimed that the goals are not feasible. French President Macron said in May that the strategy’s “objectives must be reviewed because under no circumstances can Europe afford to produce less,” and he added that a “deep food crisis” could emerge in the upcoming months.

Disagreements in Brussels have reached the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union. Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski sings a different tune than Green Deal Commissioner Frans Timmermans. Wojciechowski aims to stall the release of the pesticide reduction targets, while Timmermans slams the opponents of the reforms in the light of the war in Ukraine as opportunistic.

Unlike in the American federal system, the European Commission will need the support of a large set of member states before proceeding, making the 50 percent cut more unlikely than previously believed. On top of that, England is currently mulling legislation (already introduced to the House of Commons) that would legalize gene-editing in the food sector, in what is one of the significant regulatory breaks since Brexit. Meanwhile, the European Union, which has reportedly been reviewing its statutes on the matter, comes under pressure as one of the few remaining developed nations that do not allow new technologies in food.

The existential question for European lawmakers is to what extent EU food rules are supposed to be exported elsewhere. The bloc prides itself on high food standards — yet, simultaneously catches itself contradicting its own food safety agencies and ends up embroiled in World Trade Organization (WTO) disputes over banning specific pesticides. According to Brussels, crop protection tools that are banned in the EU should also not be imported from elsewhere. Yet, instead of addressing regulatory concerns with trade partners, Europe makes up its mind unilaterally and informs trading nations via press releases. In times when Europe is more dependent than ever on friendly nations to provide anything from wheat to animal feed, it is hard to imagine that this approach will be long-lived.

For the Biden administration, this presents an opportunity to restore food trade talks with Europe. For too long American produce has been held back from the European market over an exaggerated mistrust of U.S food standards. As it dawns on Europe that it needs reliable partners to assure strategic autonomy, Washington should reach out and seize the opportunity. Perhaps we’re in need of a TTIP 2.0, or whatever we are choosing to name trade agreements these days.

Originally published here

The looming GP shortage is real – multiple prescriptions for the same problem

When something aches or you feel bad, the first place to go or call is the General Practitioner (GP). The NHS designed GPs as the entry point for most health-related issues. The aim of this system is threefold: (1) to get patients quick access to a medical doctor in his or her vicinity, (2) to have the GP assess the problem and either treat the patient on-site or refer the patient to a specialist, and (3) to optimise more expensive specialists’ time by only seeing patients that need to see a more advanced doctor.

So far so good. But a recent study by the Health Foundation suggests that by the end of this decade around a quarter of needed GPs will have left the labour market without being replaced. The NHS GP shortage should be taken seriously: If this unfolds the more specialised parts of the NHS might get overrun by patients and a domino effect could occur bringing down the entire care system in England.

But just recruiting another 10,000 GPs without changing the current NHS GP system might be hard to realise. So let’s look at the reasons for the looming shortage and incentives that could get us out of this situation.

A massively centralised system such as the NHS will over and over again encounter shortages of capacity, human resources, and drugs given its top-down funding structure. The predominant compensation driver for GPs is how many patients are enlisted with their practice – morbidity, quality of care, and efficiency of care play merely minor roles.

A much more decentralised outpatient care system that champions private clinics and private insurance at competing rates will be much better suited to quickly react to looming shortages by individually adjusting the pay of staff and the compensation for clinics. Patients might want to pay more for seeking care nearby or pay extra for same-day appointments.

One of the fundamental problems with highly centralised and politicised systems is that often patients have to figure out which practice can actually still accept patients. In a more agile system, the money needs to follow the patient and not the patient the money (the allocated resources in the system).

The NHS is not the envy of the world, no matter how often English politicians repeat that phrase. Even social democracies such as Germany rely much more on private elements in their primary health systems than the UK does – Switzerland and the Netherlands are two great examples. Patients should be much more in charge of deciding how and where their health contributions should be spent.

One idea to make it more attractive for medical students to choose a career as GP is creating healthcare vouchers that cover the basic NHS package for GPs (around 160 GBP/year and patient) but allow patients to redeem their vouchers at non-NHS practices and pay the difference out of pocket if these are more expensive or have the difference reimbursed by supplementary insurance. This would allow GPs to increase their profit and at the same time allow patients to transfer resources allocated within the NHS to a practice of their choice.

Opening up medical education to private universities in order to bring up the annual output of graduates from medical schools should also be one driver for more doctors available. Education, as healthcare, is too centralised and hence bottlenecks are inevitable.

At the same time, we need to make it easy for medical professionals from other countries (EU and non-EU countries) to migrate to the UK and quickly (maybe even immediately) work as GPs or specialists. I personally heard from medical doctors who emigrated to the UK what bureaucratic and certification ordeal they had to go through in order to practise in England.

Let’s keep in mind that the talent pipeline from admitting a student to a medical college to having a GP is pretty much a decade. A quick change of the approach to primary care in England is needed if this problem should be successfully tackled.

Originally published here

Harm Reduction Takes a U-Turn on Vaping

Public health officials and those with significant sway in setting health policy were joyous last month when the Food and Drug Administration denied the ability of Juul Labs to continue selling its vaping device.

Handed down as a Marketing Denial Order, the decision forces gas stations, retailers and vape shops to pull Juul devices off the shelves, depriving consumers of their ability to buy these products through legal means.

Though the company has won a temporary stay by the D.C. District Court of Appeals, the FDA’s recent “nicotine zero” mandate — including limits on nicotine in cigarettes and bans on menthol tobacco products — shows the administration won’t back down on its plans to reduce nicotine consumption.

But that would be a real missed opportunity for public health.

Rather than banning consumer products or setting rigorous — if not impossible — standards for getting vaping products to market, the FDA could follow the president’s rhetoric and endorse tobacco harm reduction as an alternative.

As a matter of public health, harm reduction is one of the key pillars of President Biden’s National Drug Control Strategy, as he revealed in this year’s State of the Union address. This includes education, support, clean needle exchanges and safe injection sites for those addicted to drugs like heroin and other prescriptions. If this path is virtuous for those addicted to opioids, why shouldn’t it be the same for those addicted to nicotine, as practiced elsewhere?

The United Kingdom not only recognizes the benefits of vaping devices but actively recommends them in their own materials and the National Health Service, their state health system, championing the 1.2 million British vapers who have now quit smoking. Health wards in New Zealand routinely offer vaping products to patients.

If the United Kingdom and New Zealand can cite various studies and health surveys demonstrating that vaping devices are 95 percent less harmful than smoking, why does this evidence fail in crossing the ocean to American regulators?

If the latest Gallup polls are believed, 6 percent of Americans are vapers, most of whom make less than $40,000 yearly. That is the equivalent of 20 million vapers who have chosen a less harmful product to quell their nicotine cravings.

Twice that number —nearly 40 million — are still smokers, according to the CDC. Pivoting to a harm reduction strategy could easily save millions of lives.

That includes recognizing the vape shop owners, passionate vaper community groups, and tobacco control professionals who have come to rely on an entire industry of vaping products as a more effective strategy in eliminating the harms of tobacco.

Those who applaud the administration’s actions on Juul point to the company’s past advertising to youth and the higher uptake of young people to vaping devices. These are troubling situations that deserve careful consideration, public scorn and action, especially considering the effects of nicotine on adolescent brains.

That said, rather than mitigating these harms to young people and addressing them properly, why are we so quick to abandon 40 million smokers from the opportunity to switch to a less harmful product to satisfy their addiction?

Most vapers enjoy products from a competitive marketplace of open tank systems, disposables and pod tanks far from the grip of any tobacco executive. This point is often overlooked in the public debate on vaping.

If the pandemic taught us anything about public perceptions of risk, it is that we must empower individuals to make decisions to improve their own situation rather than making it for them.

Thwarting adult consumers’ ability to choose a healthier option is denying the genuine health benefits that come with embracing harm reduction.

We have laws for a reason, and they should be enforced to keep vape devices away from the hands of youth. Education and strong parental supervision would do wonders in keeping a generation from addiction.

But completely abandoning the prospect of a smoke-free society would be a folly, and it’s time our public health officials admit it.

Originally published here

New EU pesticide targets could lead to unintended consequences

With the EU proposing new measures to cut the use of pesticides by 50% this could lead to a spike in illicit trade warns Maria Chaplia.

EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides recently proposed a major Sustainable Use of Pesticides law (SUR), calling for the use of pesticides as the “last resort” measure. The bill aims to set new binding pesticides targets for member states to cut their use within the EU by 50%. 

Limiting the tools of European farmers at a time when global food systems are struggling to cope with the consequences of the Russian war against Ukraine, is inhumane to say the least. It will not be long before we see another spike in illicit trade of pesticides.

Banning or overregulating products that consumers, or farmers (in the case of pesticides) need and want to use, especially during this challenging time in world history, does more harm than good

Pesticides are some of the most regulated products both in the EU and globally. If illegal pesticide producers were a single company they would be the 4th largest in the world in terms of value. In 2018, the EU Intellectual Property Office stated that €1.3 billion is lost every year due to fake pesticides. This translates to €299 million and 500 jobs lost per year in Germany, €240 million and 500 jobs each year lost in France, and €185 million and 270 jobs lost annually in Italy. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated this  trend in agriculture too, among other areas, such as alcohol. The more regulated the product is, the higher chances are that criminal networks will exploit the regulation to their benefit. For European consumers, illicit trade means trading product safety for more access to restricted goods. As the demand for illicit products such as alcohol, pesticides, and tobacco, to name a few, shifts to the black market, it seems that access is more important than safety.

Over the period 2011- 2018, the sales of pesticides remained stable at around 360 million kilograms per year in the EU. In France, for example, despite the government’s ambition to drive down the use of pesticides, demand for pesticides have risen considerably in the past years. In Poland, the sale of pesticides in 2016 increased by 12.3% compared to 2011. What this shows is that overregulating pesticides only boosts illicit trade.

A quick look at the role of pesticides in farming explains why demand for them persists. Pesticides are instrumental in helping farmers prevent and/or manage pests such as weeds, insects, and plant pathogens. Substantial increases in yields recorded over the past 80 years can be mainly attributed to the use of pesticides. 

When it comes to the illicit trade in any product, not just pesticides, increasing the customs control and penalty for counterfeiting activities seems like a straightforward solution. Neither of these can fully fix the issue which, however, does not undermine their significance as a tool to tackle illicit trade. Very few illicit trade crimes are taken to courts. For example, in Slovenia, 27.1 tons of illegal pesticides have been detected and seized since 2003, and yet not a single court case was initiated. In Belgium and Italy, the situation is not any better. The justice system should take illicit trade more seriously.

Along with increasing the punishment for illicit trade, it is also necessary to re-evaluate the vices of prohibition as a policy. Banning or overregulating products that consumers, or farmers (in the case of pesticides) need and want to use, especially during this challenging time in world history, does more harm than good. The EU’s approach to pesticides should be less rushed and more forward-looking.

Originally published here

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