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Agriculture

The UN-led gambit to curb innovation in the developing world is only blocking prosperity

Why the risk-avoiding ‘Stockholm Convention’ endorses harmful bans and stunts progress where it is needed most.

Among developed nations, one of the most significant drivers of economic growth and prosperity has been the ability of our innovators, scientists, and entrepreneurs to deliver great products to the consumers who need them.

We need only think of the advances in washing machine technology, which has freed up hours of domestic labor, plastics and silicones, which have allowed products to be produced cheaply and last longer, and more abundant use of computer chips in our appliances, which has enabled a “smart” revolution in consumer products that are saving us time and effort at home, which fueling the revolutions in artificial intelligence and medical technology.

While these innovations are beginning to also reach developing nations, however, there are existing international treaties and regulatory bodies that are making it more difficult and costly for these products to be sold or even accessed. This significantly affects the life of a consumer and their ability to provide for their families.

One such United Nations treaty is a little-known global pact known as the Stockholm Convention, which aims to regulate long-lasting or “persistent” chemical substances, and has become the unofficial world regulator for industrial and consumer products and their makeup.

Many of the substances and compounds first targeted by the convention were pesticides, industrial chemicals, and by-products that had known harmful effects to humans or to the environment. These included aldrin, chlordane, and most controversially, the malaria-killing insecticide known as DDT.

The main idea behind these restrictions, and the UN convention itself, is that these compounds take forever to break down in the environment, and eventually make their way into our bodies through food or water contamination, and could pose an eventual danger to organisms.

Unfortunately, since the convention was launched in 2001, it has gone from banning and restricting known dangerous substances to now applying cautious labels or entire injunctions on chemicals used in ordinary life and with no known or measured risk factor in humans or animal species.

Moreover, with a large international budget and limited oversight, researchers have noted how the convention’s financial implementation has often pushed developing countries to adopt restrictions or bans for the guarantee of funding alone, something that has been observed with UN-related treaties on vaping products, and may have some complications for global trade.

Now in its 20th year, the convention has repeatedly relied on the European Union’s “precautionary principle” approach when it comes to determining risk, meaning that any general hazard, no matter the risk factor, must be abandoned out of an abundance of caution. This neglects the normal scientific framework of balancing risk and exposure.

The example of the herbicide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane — known as DDT — presents one of the most glaring cases. Though it has been banned in many developed nations and blocs such as the United States and the European Union, it is still used in many developing nations to wipe out insects carrying malaria and other diseases. In these nations, including South Africa and India, the possible harm is “vastly outweighed” by its ability to save the lives of children.

The current mechanism, therefore, considers the wishes of developed nations that do not have to deal with tropical diseases like malaria and forces this standard on those that do. The scientific analysis found in the global meetings of the Stockholm Convention does not take this factor, and a host of others, into account.

With a precautionary principle like this in place, including a process led more by politics than science, one can easily see how economic growth can be thwarted in nations that do yet have consumer access to products we use on a daily basis in developed countries.

Whether it is pesticides, household chemicals, or plastics, it is clear that a global regulatory body to regulate these substances is a desired force for good. However, if an international organization enforces bad policies on middle and low-income countries, then that is a calculation that harms the potential progress and innovation in the developing world.

Originally published here

The problem with the EPA’s pesticide politics

If you’re a regular consumer of memes, then you’ve likely heard of the widely used herbicide atrazine. Conspiracy theory broadcaster Alex Jones mentioned the chemical in a now-viral segment claiming it “turns the frog gay.” Jones had based his claims on research by a Berkeley biology professor named Tyrone Hayes. In 2002, Hayes published a study that claimed to find “hermaphroditic, demasculinized frogs after exposure to the herbicide atrazine at low ecologically relevant doses.”

Though it was dressed up as science and eventually became a meme, those claims were not peer-reviewed, and Hayes never provided data to back up his conclusions. Oddly enough, none of the other 7,000-plus scientific studies that established the safety of atrazine ever came to the same conclusion.

However, this herbicide has opponents beyond the realm of conspiracy theorists, not because of its inherent characteristics, but because environmental activists are increasingly attempting to ban all pesticides. Unlike the European Union, the U.S. has maintained a reasonable standard on studied substances allowed for use in modern agriculture because the U.S does not pursue the goal of boosting an “organic food only” type of policy . Unfortunately, that appears to be changing.

When the Environmental Protection Agency reauthorized atrazine in 2019, it did so according to a mandate by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act to consider both risks and benefits arising from the registration. The agency reconsidered the so-called concentration equivalent level of concern, a conservative regulatory threshold meant to protect aquatic ecosystems from damage by the herbicide. The EPA practically reauthorized atrazine for use by farmers after a 2016 EPA evaluation proposed lowering the threshold from 10 parts per billion to 3.4 parts per billion. At the 3.4 ppb threshold, atrazine cannot be used practically, making the CELOC so restrictive that the substance would not have been allowed on the domestic market.

To farmers, atrazine and other herbicides such as glyphosate, glufosinate, and 2,4-D play a vital role in killing weeds that would otherwise have to be handled through increased tillage. This “conservation tillage,” as it’s called, reduces soil erosion and runoff. Increased soil tillage would, overall, be worse for the environment, as ​​tillage also reduces crop residue, which helps cushion the force of raindrops.

The fight over atrazine has the new EPA embroiled in a legal battle. Following lawsuits by environmental organizations against the reauthorization of atrazine, the EPA is now asking the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to instruct itself to reconsider the previous assessment. With this move, the EPA moves away from the scientific approach to risk and benefit assessment by circumventing the recurring reevaluation periods. In picking a politically convenient court to enable a “restart” of the process, the EPA follows politics, not scientific rigor.

This is not the first time that the EPA has done this. In a similarly disturbing move, the agency in May used a lawsuit by environmental organizations against the registration of glyphosate to ask a 9th Circuit Court to tell the EPA to reconsider certain past decisions concerning the ecological impact of the widely used herbicide. Using the court system to revisit settled regulatory decisions runs the risk of politicizing a process, in this case the regular registration review of herbicides and pesticides, that is constructed and designed to be apolitical and to function the same way regardless of who is in the White House.

If the goal of the federal government is to follow a European-style road map to increase organic farming despite the fact that only 4% of American consumers actually demand these products, then that’s a political conversation that should be open and transparent.

However, increasingly depriving conventional farmers of the essential tools they need to protect against natural threats to their crops is a backdoor means of hurting farmers and consumers alike while not contributing to a fruitful discussion.

Opening the floodgates of administrative flip-flopping and an avalanche of lawsuits is to nobody’s benefit but a few wealthy law firms. Picture the scene of organic farming being subject to the same kind of scrutiny. Would it be productive for a subsequent administration and NGOs friendly to its causes to attack copper sulfate, a pesticide commonly used in organic farming, relentlessly?

Diversity in farming allows farming entrepreneurs to choose the production methods they feel the most comfortable with while allowing consumers to choose the foodstuffs they like the most. In this equation, the role of environmental protection agencies is to assess science in an unbiased way, removed from the political priorities of the day. At least at present, that’s a goal the EPA should embrace rather than push aside.

Originally published here

Congress Wants to Copy Some of the EU’s Worst Food Rules. That’s a Bad Idea

There is simply no argument in favor of copying EU food regulations.

Legislation looming in the US Congress could emulate European food standards by copying European agricultural regulation. PACTA (Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act), legislation sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders would outlaw any pesticide that is illegal in either European Union member states, the European Union itself, or Canada.

To many Americans, Europe represents the epitome of culinary civilization, and it’s true that Italian standards for pasta, French standard for bread, and Spanish standards for seafood often far outrank what the average restaurant will serve in the United States. But with that said, we shouldn’t confuse the presence of prime cooking schools in France with a better food market. Europe’s increasing hostility towards crop protection in the form of pesticides is not going to do itself any favors.

A cornerstone of the EU’s continuous ambitions to revamp its food regulation is the “Farm to Fork Strategy,” known as F2F. This strategy, which is part of the “European Green Deal,” is a roadmap for a set of package bills set to hit the EU’s legislature in the coming years. Two of its cornerstone proposals are a reduction of pesticides by 50 percent by 2030, and increasing organic food production to 25 percent by 2030 (it is currently at about 8 percent).

The European Commission has yet to release an impact assessment on what the Farm to Fork strategy would mean for farmers and consumers. Despite repeated calls from EU parliamentarians, it has been unable to provide hard numbers backing up the political argument that these environmental reforms would also be good economically. Thankfully, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) did its own study. In fact, when the USDA made an impact assessment, it found that, if implemented, F2F would result in a 12 percent reduction in agricultural production in Europe and increase the prices of consumer goods by 17 percent in the EU, by 5 percent in the US, and by 9 percent worldwide.

In addition, the USDA also found that in the adoption scenario, trade flows would be reduced, and that Europe’s GDP would decline significantly as result of the increase in food commodity prices (Europe’s GDP decline would represent 76 percent of the overall global GDP decline as a result of F2F).

Developing nations would also be hard hit. Because as a result of these stringent food rules, the EU would implement protectionist measures.

“By 2030, the number of food-insecure people in the case of EU-only adoption would increase by an additional 22 million more than projected without the EC’s proposed Strategies,” USDA concluded.

You could ask why it all matters, since Europeans do pay less for food that apparently is also cooked better. It is true that grocery shopping in Germany can be quite eye-opening to Americans—a pound of wild-caught smoked salmon costs anywhere between $10 and $20 in America (or more), while in Germany those prices vary between $2 and $10. Most of that is because the United States does not shower its farmers and fishers with the same lavish farm subsidies that Europe does. While the US also subsidies farmers, research shows that Europe “out-subsidises” the States by a long shot. So while supermarket prices are lower for consumers, it’s the tax returns of Europeans that tell the real story. In countries such as Belgium, effective income tax rates (with social security) are upwards of 50 percent. In fact, single Belgian workers are the highest taxed in the entire OECD, and they are closely followed by those in Germany and France, both nearing the 50 percent mark. And this doesn’t even go into detail of how the European Union uses its farm subsidies to undercut producers in developing markets and, as the New York Times put it, how oligarchs milk these millions of farm subsidies for their own benefit.

Reducing pesticides by political decree rather than through innovative technology is a non-scientific approach. If the argument of the European Union were that with modern farm equipment, such as smart-sprays, the amount of pesticides could be reduced because farmers are able to make their use more efficient, then that would be a forward-thinking approach. Instead, the 50 percent reduction target looks good on a poster, but has little to do with evidence-based policy making. After all: if the existing 100 percent are bad for human health, why only restrict 50 percent, and not the entirety of all these substances?

Incidentally that is what the EU did on a large scale with neonicotinoids, by banning certain ones for farming use. Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are insecticides that are essential for farmers not to lose a significant amount of their crops each season. In December last year, the French parliament voted for a three year suspension of the ban on neonics, because sugar beet farmers were risking going completely out of business over crop losses. The bans exist in Europe because neonics have been accused of harming pollinators.

The “Bee-pocalypse” in the early 2000s was blamed first on GMOs, then subsequently on neonics when the GMO argument was quickly found to be false. But neonics also aren’t at fault. Bee colony reductions and disappearances occur naturally and periodically throughout history. In fact, there were sporadic bee colony declines all throughout (recorded) history, namely the 19th and 20th century, before neonics were first introduced in 1985. In fact, not only are bees not affected by neonics, they aren’t even declining.

As the Washington Post reported in two separate articles in 2015—”Call Off the Bee-pocalypse: U.S. Honeybee Colonies Hit a 20-Year High” and “Believe It of Not, the Bees Are Doing Just Fine,” the hysteria of global bee declines are simply inaccurate. You can even do this for yourself: visit the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) website, select “beehives” in the visualised data section, and click on any country or region you like. Most countries and regions have a steady upwards trend in the prevalence of bees. In the United States, the bee population is actually set to double in the coming years compared to the 1960s level.

So why lie about it? Why is it such a prevalent narrative that GMOs (or any given pesticide of the day) kill the bees? The argument is politically convenient, but not scientifically sound. In Europe, the enemies of modern agriculture have a view of the world that does not match the society of comfort and availability. The EU’s Green Deal Commissioner Frans Timmermans bemoaned in May last year (mind you this is at the height of the first COVID-19 lockdown) that “we’ve gotten used to food being too cheap.”

He didn’t mean that agriculture subsidies were out of proportion, but rather that being able to buy meat or fish on any given day and for low prices were problematic in nature. For a man paid $30,000 a month for his Commission job, while Romanian consumers paid upwards of 20 percent of their income on food, that’s the definition of tone-deaf.

In the United States, availability and competition are key. Also, while Europe’s dreams of a world where nature politely sends no insects to eat our crops, no mold to befall food stocks, and where no other natural conditions could endanger food security, the United States has always enabled scientific innovation. Case in point, the US is far ahead on developing genetic engineering, while Europe lags behind.

There is simply no argument in favor of copying EU food regulations.

Originally published here

Parliament decides on F2F this month, here is what it should know

Parliament should raise serious questions about the plans.

This month the European Parliament is set to discuss the Farm to Fork strategy of the European Commission. The plans set out significant changes to the farming system, mandating a 50% reduction of pesticides by 2030, and an increase to 25% of the share of organic in all EU food production in 2030. Adding to that, the strategy wants to set out goals for “healthy diets”, combining the goal of reducing meat consumption for both health and environmental purposes.

The essential claim is that processed meat is a danger to public health, as it is associated with an increased risk of cancer. The “associated with” is quite an important keyword here, especially since it is being repeated so often. Everything you consume is essentially carcinogenic, and can therefore be linked to different cancers. The question is how dangerous it is exactly. 

Read the full article here

On Agriculture, There’s No Need To Learn From Europe

Throughout the country, there is a rising movement that hopes to make regulations on American agriculture mirror that of the European Union.

It would be a toxic mistake.

Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have teamed up to introduce the Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act (PACTA), supported by a set of green environmental NGOs with the goal of copy-pasting the EU’s agriculture regulations, to the detriment of American farmers and consumers.

The EU recently released its “Fit for 55” climate package, intending to reduce carbon dioxide emissions over the years to come. This is in line with the “European Green Deal,” ripped directly from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal,” which fortunately hasn’t yet become law. In an effort to reduce CO2 emissions, Europe blames the agricultural sector and uses the opportunity to pursue other ideological goals of green groups.

A cornerstone of the EU’s continuous ambitions to revamp food regulation is the “Farm to Fork Strategy,” known as F2F. This is a roadmap for a set of package bills set to hit the EU’s legislature in the coming years that will aim to reduce pesticides by 50 percent by 2030 and increase organic food production to 25 percent by 2030 (it is currently at about 8 percent).

For years, the EU has resisted a trade deal with the United States over its caricaturistic view of American agriculture. We often hear of “chlorine chicken” and “hormone beef,” used by Europeans to stigmatize American food imports. During the negotiations of the TTIP agreement under the Obama administration, the deal largely failed because of misinformation related to just that. Under the Trump administration, Brussels persisted in using agriculture to block ongoing trade negotiations.

The Biden administration could take things a step further in the wrong direction, by simply matching the food rules with those of the EU and its member states, much to the detriment of US farmers and consumers.

One target of the EU has been neonicotinoids, also known as neonics. These insecticides are essential for farmers looking to protect their crops and avoid soaring food prices as a result of insect infestations. All relevant international regulatory agencies have deemed these products as safe — but not in Europe. And now, America’s green and environmental groups want to take the European approach: they want these insecticides banned because they “kill the bees”.

Even readers unfamiliar with agriculture regulations have probably heard about “bee-harming” pesticides, despite it being the furthest thing from the truth. For years, activists have attempted to blame genetic modification for the phenomenon of declining bee populations. But while the narrative persists, it’s most important to point out what is true: the bees aren’t dying.

Across the world, bee populations are actually increasing, including in the United States. Yes, there can be regional declines, but those are cyclical and have no impact on the overall increase of bee populations. Even The Washington Post has pointed out that the so-called “Bee-pocalypse” is a myth.

Fortunately, U.S. officials have been pushing back against the idea that American agriculture needs to be put in the penalty box.  In a virtual appearance in the European Parliament last month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack defended America’s innovative and efficient agriculture sector and warned of copying Europe’s restrictionist view. He pointed out that Europe’s adversity to pesticides and modern technology in agriculture creates a trade imbalance between Europe and the United States. An imbalance that should, by all indications, be challenged further at the level of the World Trade Organization.

What is clear is that proposed bills like PACTPA would go in the opposite direction, by allowing the United States to become more like Europe. For consumers, that would mean less food safety and security, more exposure to harmful natural pests, rising prices, and also rising government expenditure on farm subsidies, which Europeans have already been addicted to for too long.

If the U.S. wants to follow a good example on agriculture, Europe is the last place they should look.

Originally published here

Scientific cherry-picking

Power to the young Greens.

“We Greens in the Bundestag stand for a rural-ecological agriculture”, it says on the website of the Green parliamentary group. They advocate GM-free food, low-pesticide agriculture, more organic farming and regional marketing. The Greens take “stand for” seriously, as the party now demands nothing less than a complete ban on industrial agriculture. After years in which the organic shop meant a niche for consumers who wanted to shop differently, organic products should now become compulsory.

This is also making waves abroad. The Daily Telegraph writes that the image of the Greens as a “prohibition party” is returning. Why this is making waves is clear. The Greens are experiencing a constant influx of voters in Germany, and so they and their policies are to be taken as seriously as during their last participation in the federal government.

The Greens also want to ban the gene-editing, which is known through techniques such as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). With these systems, researchers can permanently alter genes in living cells and organisms and in future correct mutations at exact locations in the human genome and thus treat genetic causes of disease. The same technology can also be used in agriculture. The Greens see “genome editing” as the same as the question of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are also banned.

Here, the Green position is no longer in line with that of its own youth. Already last year, the Green youth in Lower Saxony demanded “a new start for the debate on green genetic engineering without dogmas and a political argumentation on a scientific basis”.

This year, too, there was new criticism. In the party resolution of the Green Youth Saxony-Anhalt it says at the end of March:

“Today it is of fundamental importance to rethink this historical position [a complete ban on GMOs] in order to tackle the coming global challenges.”

The scientific remoteness of the Greens is surprising, since the environmentalists usually argue very scientifically about climate change. Even if the resulting policy proposals are radical and daring, they rigorously cite scientific studies as the basis for their demands. In agriculture, on the other hand, the party behaves dogmatically.

Those who defend GMOs and pesticides in science and politics must have been bought by large international corporations. Sceptics of climate change work the same way here: scientists who prove climate change must have been bought by some influential circles.

The scientific method and fact-based politics fall short of attention.

Where is all this going? Genome editing is important for further scientific progress, but recent decisions by the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg and the resistance of various environmental activists in Germany quickly put an end to its potential.

For farmers, this means less progress and thus the continued use of equally unpopular pesticides, or copper as a fungicide in organic farming. Meanwhile, research abroad is being accelerated. A further compartmentalisation in trade policy would then again be necessary in order to “protect” the paralysed farmers in Europe from foreign products.

Consumers would lack the choice after such bans. Organic or non-organic remains a major public debate. However, it should not be solved by abolishing conventional agriculture, but by education and innovation.

The Young Greens in Saxony-Anhalt write in one of their demands:

“We reject in principle the stirring up of irrational fears to reach a political goal, this applies also to genetic engineering.”

That’s a good start.

Originally published here.

Sustainability: the European word-battle

It will mean something different to everyone.

The Farm to Fork Strategy of the European Union attempts to foster sustainability in the agricultural sector. While sustainability is a laudable goal in a general sense, it has a wide range of possible meanings and applications. EU institutions have adequately defined the word. 

It is necessary to establish a clear and precise definition of what we mean by sustainability, as only this will allow us to set concrete goals and objectives and develop clear and precise metrics to track our progress in achieving them.  The implication from the European Commission seems to be that organic agriculture is essentially synonymous with sustainable agriculture. But that is a mere assumption, made without reference to a host of practical concerns and obviating any real scientific examination of the facts. 

The European Commission’s web page for sustainable agriculture lauds the improvements on sustainability made by the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), yet it has not established a definition that matches the goals met by the policy. The Farm to Fork Strategy is a political roadmap that outlines certain numerical goals, yet the claim that these goals are sustainable is merely implied. In order for European consumers to understand the objectives of the European Union in the realm of sustainable agriculture, we need to establish definitions that concisely describe what sustainable agriculture is.

In any given webinar or even the word sustainability can be thrown meaninglessly, often supporting the speaker’s agenda. That speaker is often a supporter of agro-ecology or the food production system that rejects the advancements of modern agriculture. And that is fair game; those advocates have to have their voice in the democratic process. That said, they are often co-opting a term that has yet to be well-defined. You can take the test: stop an average consumer in the street and ask whether we should want more sustainable food. Who would possibly disagree with that? As to whether we should support sustainable food without defining what that means, is much like asking whether or not we should want “good” food. We will have different understandings of what that implies. In the organic sector, standards of sustainability would not be met.

Credible research has established that moving all current farming to organic farming would increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 70% . Researchers analysed the hypothetical move of Welsh and English farm production to organic, and found that reduced crop yields in organic farming increased the need to import food from overseas. Including the GHGs emitted growing that food abroad — a part of the equation often ignored advocates of organic agriculture — otal GHGs emitted would increase between 21% in the best-case scenario to an astounding 70%, depending on how much natural habitat and forest had to be cleared to make up for the decline caused by England’s and Wales’ switch to organic production. For the European Union, which aims at a 25% organic production target in Europe, the impact of overseas imports would be even more considerable. While the study assumed England and Wales would import the majority of the extra food they needed from Europe, a 25% organic EU would be making up its production deficits by importing food grown in less developed countries with considerably less efficient farming methods, which would significantly increase emissions.

So while we’re in the business of defining sustainability, why don’t we deal with the facts and only the facts?

Originally published here.

Farm-to-Fork plan suggests Europe wants sustainable farming. So why do EU politicians ignore the ‘green’ benefits of GM crops?

There is ongoing disagreement between the popularly elected European Parliament and the executives in the European Commission over approvals of “genetically modified” (GM) crops, which are made with modern molecular genetic engineering techniques. In December, members of the European Parliament objected to authorizations of no fewer than five new GM crops — one soybean and four corn (maize) varieties — developed for food and animal feedstock. These objections follow dozens of others that have been made over the previous five years. (These are the same varieties that are ubiquitous in many other countries, including the United States.) A European Commission spokesperson has suggested that a new approach will be necessary to authorize such “genetically modified organisms,” or GMOs, in order to align with the new Farm to Fork Strategy, an agricultural strategy recently embraced by Europe:

We look forward to constructive cooperation with the co-legislators on all these measures, which we believe will enable the achievement of a sustainable food system, including GMOs on which the EU feed sector is presently highly dependent.

The latter part of this quote is, in fact, incomplete: There is extensive reliance of the EU on imports of both food and feed, of which a significant portion is genetically engineered. In 2018, for example, the EU imported about 45 million tons a year of GM crops for food and livestock feed. More specifically, the livestock sector in the EU depends heavily on imports of soy. According to Commission figures, in 2019-2020 the EU imported 16.87 million tonnes of soymeal and 14.17 million tonnes of soybeans, most of which came from countries where GM crops are widely cultivated. For example, 90% originates from four countries in which around 90% of cultivated soybeans are GM.

For a GM crop to enter the EU marketplace (whether for cultivation or to be used in food or feed, or for other purposes), an authorization is required. Applications for authorization are first submitted to a Member State, which forwards them to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In cooperation with Member States’ scientific bodies, EFSA assesses possible risks of the variety to human and animal health and the environment. Parliament itself plays no part in the authorization process, but it can oppose or demand rejection of a new GM crop based on any whim, prejudice, or the bleating of NGOs in their constituencies. They have chosen to ignore the sagacious observation of the 18th century Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke that, in republics,

Your Representative owes you, not only his industry, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

GM crops have been shown repeatedly to pose no unique or systematic risks to human health or the environment. The policies articulated in Farm to Fork suggest a renewed interest by the EU in environmental sustainability but conveniently ignore that that is the essence of what GM crops can bring to the table. Numerous analyses, in particular those of economists Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, have demonstrated that the introduction of GM crops lessens the amount of chemical inputs, improves farm yields and farmer incomes, and reduces the need for tillage, thus reducing carbon emissions.  The indirect benefits from GM crops include empowering women farmers by removing the drudgery of weeding, and lowering the risk of cancer by lessening crop damage from insect pests whose predation can increase aflatoxin levels. Reducing crop damage in turn reduces food waste. GM crops can also improve farmers’ health by lessening the likelihood of pesticide poisoning, and GM biofortified crops can also provide nutritional benefits that are not found in conventional crops, a life-saving innovation for the rural poor in low- to middle-income countries.

The rift between the views of the European Parliament and EU scientific agencies such as the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) shows no signs of healing. Bill Wirtz of the Consumer Choice Center predicts that trying to achieve the goals of the Farm to Fork strategy will have “dire impacts.” To address a legacy of environmental degradation, the EU proposes by 2030 to increase organic farming by 25% and reduce pesticide application on farmland by 50%. These plans fail to consider that pesticide use has sharply decreased over the past 50 years and that organic agriculture does not necessarily imply lower carbon emissions; often, the opposite is true.

Wirtz goes on to describe how slack compliance laws across the EU have made food fraud a viable business model. A significant proportion of this fraudulent organic food stems from international imports from countries, such as China, with a history of inferior quality and violation of food standards. However, he observes, increasing the surveillance and enforcement of food imports standards and rejecting those that are fraudulent could jeopardize current food security efforts, as well as the economy of the EU as a whole, given the EU’s substantial dependency on food imports.

The Farm to Fork initiative gets support from occasional specious articles in the “scientific” literature. An example is a paper published last December in Nature Communications, “Calculation of external climate costs for food highlights /inadequate pricing of animal products” by German researchers Pieper et al. The paper, which illustrates the hazards of meta-analyses on poorly selected articles, describes the use of life-cycle assessment and meta-analytical tools to determine the external climate-warming costs of animal meat, dairy and plant-based food products, made with conventional versus organic practices. The authors calculate that external greenhouse gas costs are highest for animal-based products, followed by conventional dairy products, and lowest for plant-based products, and they recommend that policy changes be made in order to make currently “distorted” food prices better reflect these environmental “costs.” They also claim that organic farming practices have a lower environmental impact than conventional, and for that matter, GM crops. They failed, however, to reference the immense body of work of Matin Qaim, Brookes and Barfoot, and many others, documenting the role that GM crops have played in furthering environmental sustainability by reducing carbon emissions and pesticide use, while increasing yield and farmers’ incomes. The omission of any reference to, or rebuttal of, that exemplary body of work is a flagrant flaw.

The paucity of GM versus organic crop data discussed in the paper is also deceptive. Anyone unfamiliar with the role of GM crops in agriculture would be left with the impression that organic crops are superior in terms of land use, deforestation, pesticide use and other environmental concerns. Yet many difficulties exist, especially, for pest management of organic crops, often resulting in lower yields and reduced product quality.

There is extensive and robust data suggesting that organic farming is not a viable strategy to reduce global GHG emissions. When the effects of land-use change are factored in, organic farming can result in higher global GHG emissions than conventional alternatives — which is even more pronounced if one includes the development and use of new breeding technologies, which are banned in organic farming.

Pieper et al claim — rather grandiosely, it seems to us — that their method of calculating the “true costs of food…could lead to an increase in the welfare of society as a whole by reducing current market imperfections and their resulting negative ecological and social impacts.” But that only works if we omit all the data on imported food and feed, turn a blind eye to the welfare of the poor, and disregard the impact of crop pests for which there is no good organic solution.

It is true that animal-based products have costs in terms of greenhouse gas emissions that are not reflected in the price, that plant-based products have varying external climate costs (as have all non-food products that we consume), and that adopting policies that internalizing those costs as much as possible would be the best practice. Conventional farming often has significantly higher yields, especially for food crops (as opposed to hay and silage), than farming with organic practices. The adoption of agroecological practices mandated by Farm-to-Fork policies would greatly reduce agricultural productivity in the EU, and could have devastating consequences for food-insecure Africa. Europe is the major trading partner for many African countries, and European NGOs and government aid organizations exert profound influence over Africa, often actively discouraging the use of superior modern farming approaches and technologies, claiming that adoption of these tools conflicts with the EU’s “Green Deal” initiative. Thus, there is a negative ripple effect on developing countries of anti-innovation, anti-technology policies by influential industrialized countries.

Moreover, the EU even now imports much of its food, which as described above, has significant implications for its trading partners and Europe’s future food security. The EU seems to have failed to consider that continuing on the Farm to Fork trajectory will require endlessly increasing food imports, increasing food prices and jeopardizing quality. Or maybe they have just chosen to embrace the fad of the moment and kick the can down la rueAprès moi, le déluge.

Originally published here.

European Green Deal: GMOs completely absent

Can Europe still claim to be on the side of science?…

Agriculture is one of the key strategic pillars in the fight against climate change. In a world where average temperatures are set to reach levels that humanity has never experienced, we will have to be even more resourceful to feed an ever-growing population. Unfortunately, the “Farm to Fork” plan unveiled by the European Commission last May seems to be going in the opposite direction. Instead of relying on the latest innovations brought about by genetic engineering, the Commission prefers to bet on the democratisation of organic farming, whose ecological and health virtues are, after analysis, very limited. 

The Commission plans to reduce the European agricultural area by 10% while converting 25% of agricultural land to organic farming, representing only 7.5% of the land. These two objectives are incompatible. Indeed, given that the profitability per hectare of organic farming is on average 25% lower than that of conventional farming, an increase in the proportion of “organic” farming in Europe must necessarily be accompanied by an increase in the area cultivated – and potentially by a reduction in forests. For example, an article published in Nature in December 2018 showed that conversion to organic farming could lead to significant CO2 emissions by promoting deforestation. After studying the case of organic peas grown in Sweden, the authors conclude that they have “an impact on the climate about 50% greater than conventionally grown peas”. 

The plan also calls for the use of chemical pesticides to be halved. Here again, the Commission fails to recognise that pesticides are essential to protect crops from disease and pests. Farmers cannot do without them without risking the decimation of their crops and the collapse of their yields – exposing consumers to shortages and sharp price fluctuations. And since they cannot do without them, if they are forbidden to use chemical pesticides, they will turn to so-called ‘natural’ pesticides, as in organic farming. However, just because a pesticide is natural does not mean that it is necessarily less dangerous for health and the environment. On the contrary, copper sulphate, a ‘natural’ fungicide widely used in organic farming, is known to be toxic.

Conversely, just because a pesticide is synthetic does not mean it is dangerous. Indeed, despite the paranoia surrounding chemical pesticides today, the European Food Safety Agency concluded in a 2016 study that they “are not likely to pose a health risk to consumers”. This is not surprising, as pesticides are tested for health effects before being put on the market. 

It is true, however, that in environmental terms, chemical pesticides can have harmful consequences. But no more so than natural pesticides – copper sulphate, once again, is as toxic to humans as it is to ecosystems. So the challenge is to find a real alternative to pesticides. 

The good news is that one already exists: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Indeed, scientists at the Georg-August University in Goettingen, Germany, have estimated that genetic engineering has already reduced the use of chemical pesticides worldwide by 37% while increasing crop yields by 22% and boosting farmers’ profits by 68%. But the benefits of growing GM crops do not stop there. It also produces drought-resistant crops and end products with improved nutritional properties. In short, genetic engineering promises to address ecological, health and demographic challenges simultaneously.

Unfortunately, the development of this technology is not part of the Commission’s plan. This is due to the precautionary dogma that inspires the current European regulations. Indeed, while much progress has been made in this field, allowing the various techniques to gain in precision, the regulation that applies to all GMOs -without distinction- has not evolved since 2001. 

It is regrettable that a “Green New Deal” whose ambition is to build a “healthier and more sustainable food system” does not include a review of the rules governing the research, development and distribution of GMOs. This is all the more so because, given the current state of knowledge, there is no reason to believe that human-directed genome modification entails more risks than that which occurs naturally through the evolutionary process.
In 2016, a hundred Nobel Prize winners spoke out in favour of GM crops: “GMOs are safe, GMOs are environmentally friendly, GMOs are especially important for small farmers”. What is the logic of politics paying attention to the scientific consensus on global warming but ignoring this call from 155 Nobel Prize winners for the development of GMO agriculture? Can Europe still claim to be on the side of science?

Originally published here

Fake pesticides threaten consumer health

Counterfeiting is a real problem…

European institutions, particularly on the European Parliament’s legislative level, constantly debate and seek to regulate the use of crop protection tools. The catalogue of available products is getting thinner every year, which has been criticised by farmers. However, making chemical compounds or products illegal does not automatically rid the market of their presence. In fact, the ill effects of prohibition apply to the agricultural sector to the same extent as other consumption areas. 

In 2018, the European Union Intellectual Property Office stated that €1.3 billion are lost every year in Europe 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.

In 2018, EUROPOL revealed that some 360 tonnes of illegal or counterfeit pesticides were seized in Europe in a joint effort with the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). Counterfeit pesticides, now estimated to represent 14% of the European crop protection market, pose serious health risks to consumers. They are not subject to the rigorous safety assessments of food safety authorities. Adding to that, untested products can also lead to considerable harvest loss, resulting in less food security for European consumers.

Recent numbers make the 2018 statistics pale in comparison. In 2020, EUROPOL stated that 1,346 tonnes of counterfeits, illegal, and unregulated products had been taken off the market, or the equivalent of 458 Olympic-sized pools, with a total worth of €94 million of criminal profits seized. In the illegal trade raids, one can also notice an uptick in seizures of illegal pesticides, which relates to non-approved products. Year after year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) records the presence of unapproved pesticides in European food. As a result, there have been calls upon member states to increase their inquiries into the imports of non approved pesticides into the European Union. In an effort to tackle this problem at its roots, we believe that a re-evaluation, conjointly with farmers associations, of the approval of these substances is a sensible solution. Suppose the European Union or member states outlaw a chemical substance due to health concerns, yet the ban results in an uptick in illegal trade with absolutely no safety assessment. In that case, a sensible compromise solution that takes into account the worries of producers while respecting the safety of consumers is in order.

Note on the illicit trade with fertilisers: In 2012, the Danish newspaper “Politiken” published an extensive report on the prevalence of illicit trade with fertilisers, which triggered a question to the European Commission about the extent of this problem. In a written answer, the Commissioner in charge replied in July of 2012 that Berlaymont was not aware of illegal trade in this area, and assured the necessary observation and enforcement mechanism were in motion to avoid it. Given the extent of fraudulent trade with organic food and the prevalent spread of fake pesticides, we believe that an investigation into the existence of illicit fertilisers in Europe is opportune.

Illicit trade is a significant challenge for societies in today’s globalised world. From cosmetics to medicines and agricultural products, illicit trade is putting millions of consumers around the globe at risk. The scope of the problem is transnational, and, therefore, the cost of misguided policies is very high. Our goal should be to create and sustain the conditions under which there would be no incentive to turn to the black market. This can be achieved by reducing tax burdens, enhancing branding and marketing freedom, introducing harsher penalties for fraudulent trading practices, and ensuring transparency across the EU.

Originally published here.

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