Author: Emil Panzaru

Ireland’s unilateral decision on mandatory alcohol labels sets a bad precedent for the EU’s Single Market

Minor wine and beer companies operate with thin profit margins and cannot afford the extra costs of complying with Irish rules on the one hand while maintaining their foothold in the European industry on the other, writes Emil Panzaru

The European Commission’s passive reaction to upcoming Irish alcohol labels is a sobering development for the future of the European Union. In July last year, the Republic of Irelandsubmitted a draft law called Public Health (Alcohol) Labelling Regulations 2022 to the Commission for approval. The new draft follows Section 12 of the 2018 Public Health (Alcohol) Act. It adds mandatory health wrapping on all drinks, cautioning consumers about the health dangers of alcohol, such as cancer, liver disease, and fetal alcoholic disorders. The Commission has given the proposal its green light in the most surprising way possible. It has done so by failing to comment on the text despite objections from Italy, France, and Spain, the EU’s biggest alcohol producers, and no less than five other member states.

Set aside the fact that people often don’t pay attention to packaging, so the policy will likely be ineffective. Allowing Ireland to change trade rules unilaterally throws a spanner into the usual Single European Act mechanisms that are supposed to operate at an EU-wide level.

This interruption of the Single Market represents a blow to an already fragile agricultural sector. The European Union claims to support small and medium-sized businesses in its single-market strategy. Yet, unlike multinationals, minor wine and beer companies operate with thin profit margins and cannot afford the extra costs of complying with Irish rules on the one hand while maintaining their foothold in the European industry on the other. Artisanal producers from Italy or Spain will have to exit the Irish market altogether. When the bloc is barely recovering from the higher food and beverage prices due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, any further disruption would be a self-inflicted wound. 

In the long-term, the ruling creates a dangerous political and legal opt-out that countries besides Ireland may find fitting to exploit. Nothing will stop other member states from one-sidedly amending trade rules whenever doing so suits domestic politics and objectives. As Europe’s agricultural powerhouse (accounting for 18% of all produce), France may decide that its champagne is not just special because of the designated place of its origin. Indeed, champagne could enjoy a unique position on the market and be bought and sold strictly with French packaging under French rules. Of course, countries will find ways to apply the same logic to non-agricultural items, too (like electric vehicles). Each state stands to gain from interventions, restrictions, and demands for special treatment, but the outcome would make everyone collectively poorer.

To prevent this scenario, the European Commission should uphold and ensure the harmonization of Single Market rules. At the very least, it must stop being quiet when real objections need answers. Instead, the Commission’s Department for Growth ought to respect provision 138 from the rules and procedures for the European Parliament, allow MEPs to submit 20 questions on the matter, and answer their queries within three months.

At best, the Commission must stand firm on its legal and political principles. Article 41 of 1169/2011 EU food labeling regulation only allows for national measures regarding the listing of ingredients and packaging when there are no existing EU regulations. Ireland must, therefore, refrain from pursuing a campaign that overwrites regulation 2019/787 and code 1308/2013 of EU law. Of course, Ireland can pursue other strategies compatible with EU law to achieve its objectives. For instance, the Taoiseach’s office could launch a nationwide educational campaign on alcohol or revise the country’s health guidelines.

We all want people to lead happier, healthier lives. But we should not let the Union’s grandest achievement, the free movement of free people, goods, services, and capital, be squandered. 

Originally published here

Britain’s ban on single-use plastics is bad news for consumers and the environment

British consumers can say goodbye to the comforts of plastic cutlery, plates, and food containers. Having already banned plastic straws, cotton buds, and stirrers, England joins Scotland in outlawing the mass manufacturing and distribution of single-use plastics from October 2023 onwards. Wales is in the process of drafting similar legislation.

The reasons behind the ban are visible to the naked eye. Sadly, everyone in Britain is familiar with the plastic litter and landfills spoiling the countryside.  Add the contribution that plastics make to greenhouse gas emissions and the threat they pose to the well-being of local plants and wildlife, and a ban to contain the problem begins to sound justified.

Emil Panzaru, Research Manager at the Consumer Choice Center, did not find the news welcome: “such prohibitions do more harm than good. In neglecting the dangers posed by substitutes to plastic in their impact assessments, British authorities unwittingly encourage options more damaging to the environment while depriving consumers of their choices.”

After all, it is too easy to see the awfulness of discarded forks and crushed cans gathered in a pile off the side of a road and conclude that plastics are the number one environmental threat. To support this case, the British government cites the use of 2.7 billion plastic cutlery yearly, only 10% of which are recycled, and emphasizes the link between degradable plastics and greenhouse gases.

What the government doesn’t see is the cost of producing alternatives. Once we break down the data behind greenhouse gas emissions and look at land and water consumption, ozone depletion, and resource depletion, we can see that your average consumer must reuse a cotton bag at least 7,000 times to justify its environmental impact. Compared directly, research finds that customers need to use cotton bags 52 times to reach the small footprint of a mundane Tesco carrier. These replacements are thus far more damaging than plastic ever was.

Given these issues, Panzaru suggested the following policies: “the British government needs to go beyond simplistic yet damaging solutions that paint plastic as bad and substitutes as good. If the worry is environmental, policymakers should address plastic use case-by-case, considering the costs that substitutes pose too.”

He concludes: “If the worry is that inconsiderate passers-by are spoiling the countryside, then littering and fly-tipping will not stop once the plastic is gone. Instead, the government needs to impose harsher punishments to deter people from littering in the future. This way, consumers will still be free to choose, and the environment will be better off for it.”

A looming PFAS ban threatens Europe’s economic and energy security.

Europe’s stance on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (shortened to PFAS) has only grown harsher over time. The first wave of limitations began in 2009, when the  European Chemicals Agency restricted perflurooctane sulfonic acid, a subtype of PFAS, in line with the international Stockholm Convention. 

The elimination of another (perfluorooctanic acid)  soon followed under the European Persistent Organic Pollutants Regulation in 2020. This year, Germany, Norway, and Sweden went further and called on the European Commission to phase out all PFAS in Europe. 

Eliminating so-called “forever chemicals” might seem like the sensible thing to do. After all, the substances are known to have seeped from water sources into human bodies, raising fears of adverse health effects. High concentrations of some of these materials in the bloodstream can cause liver, heart, kidney, or lung damage, disrupt neurological and immune systems, interrupt normal hormonal functions, and even lead to cancer. PFASs are also a potential environmental threat through water and soil pollution. And, true to their name, PFAS materials hardly degrade over time. Instead, they break down into other PFAS compounds via digestion or environmental wear and tear. 

However, removing the substances can be far more harmful than the presence of the chemicals themselves. 

PFASs are integral to any 21st-century high-tech economy. Semiconductors require a coating of fluoropolymers, yet another PFAS, to withstand the intense chemical treatments involved in their manufacturing process. Without semiconductors, we cannot have phones, computers, laptops, TVs, or any modern-day appliance. 

A world with zero risks is impossible. Instead of hopelessly trying to build one, Europe should weigh the pros and cons of PFAS on a case-by-case basis and settle on the least harmful option.

Removing PFAS wholesale will create chaos by forcig integrated circuit suppliers to look for substitutes where none are available. The Belgian government saw the consequences of this when a factory in Antwerp shut down for seven months in response to tightening regulations. Doing the same to the microchip industry, currently suffering from supply chain difficulties, will cripple a 49 billion EUR European industry and nullify investments promised by the 40 billion EUR European Chip Act

Silicon chips would be just the start. A full PFAS ban is a danger to Europe’s energy security. The same group of highly resistant and flexible materials provides thecoating for the batteries and hydrogen fuel cells powering electric vehicles. Fluoropolymers help build wind turbines, and fluorinated gases help cool downheating pumps. Removing them creates artificial scarcities in renewables, making Europe’s energy needs (not to mention its climate goals) all the more unmanageable. 

The EU’s remaining alternative is to procure the compounds or their replacements from China, already the world’s biggest exporter of rare earth minerals. This would undermine Europe’s strategic autonomy

A world with zero risks is impossible. Instead of hopelessly trying to build one, Europe should weigh the pros and cons of PFAS on a case-by-case basis and settle on the least harmful option. Some products, such as firefighter foam, could be phased out without severe repercussions. In the case of others (semiconductors and energy supplies, among them), it is better to minimize excessive exposure by policing company excesses. 

Strict punishments for dumping have proven more than adequate, substantially reducing water PFAS presence since the early 2000s. That is a healthier and better future we can all get behind. 

Originally published here

Greens/EFA Report goes after plant researchers and EU organizations. It fails

A very dry summer alongside a low supply of fertilizer and energy spikes have created the perfect storm for the European agricultural sector, with staple crops like sunflower and grain maize plummeting by 12 and 16 per cent respectively (1).

No wonder there are increasing pressures (2) by member states such as the Czech Republic, Romania, Lithuania, Sweden and Italy to reconsider the EU rules leading to  the 2018 European Court of Justice decision on genetic plant breeding techniques. The Court’s ruling amends the original 2001 European Commission directive on plant modification by treating CRISPR-based plants and traditional genetic manipulation as one and the same. Critics rightfully point to how the judgment hampers innovation at a time of crisis when ingenuity is needed more than ever.

The response of the Greens European Free Alliance group to these pressures can best be characterized as stormy. The EFA has come out swinging in the arena of public discourse with a report (4) that includes a few pages of claims and many more pages of personal accusation.

No matter the emotional thunder, neither the report’s assertions nor its accusations hold water.

Its claims about the effects of genetic engineering are that it produces uncontrollable, unintended  and unsafe mutations in cells, well beyond the ones found naturally or in standard mutagenic breeding (as in, induced via radiation or chemical reaction). It would be better to stick to organic farming with organic plants instead.

Yet these claims do not measure up to the overwhelming evidence (5) (weighing thousands of studies over a 21 year-period) that gene edited plants  reduce (rather than increase) the need for pesticides (6), are less prone to disease (7) and are more reliable than older plant breeding methods (8). Even more critical analyses of studies (9) found no evidence of them being unsafe for humans.

The assertions ignore the fact that 100% organic farming is often more energy and use intensive (and thus more polluting) (10) and does not scale up (11) to the task of feeding billions of people worldwide.

These angry statements are often illogical. One line of argument says having a patent is proof that the new genetic procedure cannot produce the same result as a natural process. This must be true, it says, because it would not have been patented otherwise! That said, a patent can be awarded for other reasons than achieving a different result – such as finding a new and easier means to the same result. By ‘coincidence’,  this is closer to the real argument in favor of genetics-based  plant breeding.

Not to mention how the report overreaches by trying to discredit mutagenic rearing in the same breath as new techniques. At this point, the reason for rejecting mutagenic breeding (now almost a century old practice) is that it harms plants, despite it not harming people or animals. One could easily reject eating plants, or natural selection, on the same grounds.

Most of the report is less about science than it is about the politics in science. It accuses innovation-friendly academics and groups like EPSO, ALLEA or EU-SAGE of not being researchers at all. Rather, they are activists sneakily posing as neutral experts to do the sinister bidding of companies and revolving-door politicians. It then names and shames several individuals working in the field before concluding that more transparency is needed at the EU-level.

Let’s set aside for a moment that the accusations are false – many of these same researchers have never hidden their CVs from public scrutiny and have been very outspoken about their views (12).

Forget for a moment how unusual it is to say that well-established researchers should not pursue ‘career developments’ in the field they specialize in, must limit contacts in the industry whose performance they are asked to comment on and cannot access any of the public-private funds that are standard academic fare.

Let’s instead focus on what the report ends up doing. In trying to poison the debate with talk of dark interests, it undermines faith in the EU’s scientific institutions, since consumers have no reason to trust organizations that are as corrupt and selfish as the EFA makes them out to be. It sets out a viewpoint that paints all criticism as a ‘lobby claim’ and its side as ‘reality’. The report does all this while misunderstanding the science and practice of genetic modification.

Best then to take a deep breath and calm down.

Originally published here

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