TCS Daily

Blinded With Science

By Craig Winneker - January 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Is Europe coming to its senses and choosing science over hysteria and political correctness? Don't bet your last euro on it, but there have been some encouraging signs of late.

News of man-bites-dog proportions came last week with the revelation that Germany was on the verge of approving the production and marketing of genetically-modified corn within its borders. This, in a country where the Green Party is part of the governing coalition and holds several of the top cabinet positions.

Most surprising of all is that the announcement came from Agriculture Minister Renate Künast, who is a Grüne herself and, polls show, the second-most-popular politician in the country after Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Künast is the kind of public figure who likes to be photographed rollerblading to work and making sure pigs are comfy and emotionally stable on their way to slaughter. So it comes as a bit of a shock that she would announce that the government saw no risks associated with GM food -- something scientific study after scientific study has shown -- and that she expected products to be on German shelves by this autumn.

And, despite the fact that EU ministers continue to punt on the question of whether to lift the moratorium on GM production, she said she expected products to be available throughout Europe very soon.

Most shocked of all at these statements were Künast's Green Party comrades, who sent her (and a bunch of reporters, naturally) a letter of complaint.

"We would like to ask you to make clear at this moment that, while there is no specific scientific evidence linking GMOs to health risks, there are well-founded reservations and reasons for caution," wrote MEPs Daniel Cohn-Bendit ("Dany le Rouge", of Paris in May 1968 fame, is now head of "les Verts" in the European Parliament) and Monica Frassoni.

"On the authorization procedure under way for BT11 sweetcorn it is important not to create the impression that a Green minister has already given the go-ahead when, at the EU-level, the agreement is still pending," they warned. "During the European election campaign this would do little to encourage votes for any Green party."

Ah-so. It would appear there is a very different kind of precautionary principle at work here: Don't take any action if there is a risk of losing votes.

The GM decision isn't the only positive sign. Consider the European Commission's decision in late 2003 to re-register the herbicide Paraquat for use in European countries, despite its being banned in a few individual member states.

The product is hugely effective and, when used safely, can help boost agricultural production in the most unforgiving environments. Apply the vaunted precautionary principle here and you get the following reasoning: Paraquat can be dangerous and therefore should be banned so as to avoid any risk. But there's another kind of precautionary principle that applies, one that says: take the proper precautions and the benefits greatly outweigh the risk.

This is the conclusion reached not only by farmers all around the world but by Indian economist and risk expert Prasanna Srinivasan in a groundbreaking new study called "Paraquat: A unique contributor to agriculture and sustainable development," which he presented earlier this month in a Hayek Series debate in Brussels hosted by TCS.

Srinivasan shows that when governments, and especially major trading blocs such as the EU, ban substances such as Paraquat, their actions have serious consequences in the developing world.

"Policymakers are charged with balancing the benefits and costs of technologies to society," argues Srinivasan. "Over the course of the past 50 years, techniques for assessing these costs and benefits have improved dramatically. However, policymaking continues to be dominated by lobbying from pressure groups and vested interests. In the past, the resultant policies often benefited industrial interests at the expense of consumers, workers and the environment.

"However, over the course of the past 30 years the balance has shifted. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that single-issue pressure groups are in most cases now far more powerful than industrial interests in influencing policymakers."

When it comes to Paraquat, he concludes, "The unsubstantiated fears of a vocal minority must not become a justification for undermining the right of the silent majority of farmers to choose technologies appropriate to their circumstances."

Even Margot Wallström, the EU's reliably knee-jerk-green commissioner for the environment, who has been quoted as saying there is no such thing as a good chemical, agrees with this.

You read that right. Last fall she gave an interesting reply to a written inquiry from an MEP about the EU's decision to re-register Paraquat. The parliamentarian wanted to know why its use would be approved across the entire bloc if a few member states considered it dangerous enough to ban.

Responded the Commissioner, "Firstly, the fact that a substance is at present banned in a member state is not pertinent to the question of its inclusion in Annex I to the Directive. 97 percent of the substances covered by the Directive are banned in at least one member state -- for various reasons and not always related to safety.

"European agriculture -- in fact even the agriculture of any one Member State -- could not survive with only the remaining 3 percent of substances."

Indeed. And certainly neither could agriculture in developing countries.

Which brings us to an area where the EU still has some work to do: the so-called REACH directive on chemicals testing. Under this controversial proposal, which pits the Commission's directorates on environment and enterprise against each (guess who's on which side), some 30,000 chemicals currently in use in the EU will require a rigorous and expensive round of testing and analysis -- even though the vast majority of these chemicals have been safely in general use for a generation.

Nearly everyone outside of environment NGOs and a few scattered bureaucrats agrees that the proposal is an unmitigated disaster, and some folks are going about trying to mitigate it.

One of them is Neil Parish, an MEP from Britain and a farmer himself. He's concerned not only with the effect of the legislation on Europe's chemical industry and economy as a whole, but also on its consequences for the developing world.

"The third world cannot afford the precautionary principle, and is not concerned with theoretical risk," he told the Hayek Series audience. "They care about fighting pestilence, about coping with disease, about producing enough food from a harsh and hostile environment that can often only be tackled with the blunt instrument of pesticide use."

Stefan Scheuer, a chemicals and water policy officer for the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), countered that chemical companies "will be encouraged by REACH to substitute safer chemicals for more harmful ones." But probably not if they are too busy testing a bunch of chemicals known to be safe. They will only have so many resources available.

And, as Parish argued, there is something else at stake here -- as well as with the GM food and Paraquat issues. I can't put it any better than he does:

"It is difficult to tell someone that they should be concerned with the environment, when their bellies are empty and their crops have failed," he said. "Is it acceptable for the well-fed, wealthy and contented Western world to deny developing countries access to chemicals that we have had the luxury to use for many years, simply because our priority is to improve the environment, whereas theirs is to feed the hungry?"


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