Topics such as changing our food habits and who bears the cost of that transition are politically sensitive and need to be addressed in the debate on sustainable food systems, the director of the EU food authority EFSA, Bernhard Url, told Euractiv in an interview.
Given its mandate, the European Food Safety Authority delivers scientific opinions on the hottest topics in the food system debate, such as pesticides, chemical substances used in food packaging and animal welfare.
Url, who is expected to leave in May after 10 years at the helm of EFSA, highlighted important issues that rarely emerge in public debates on food.
In discussing the Green Deal and the transformation of food systems, he told Euractiv, “two things are not addressed enough”.
“Something that no politician wants to tell”, he said, is that to achieve a sustainable transformation of the food systems “, we will have to eat differently”.
“The second question is that if we want in Europe higher standards on environmental protection, less chemicals, more animal welfare, somebody has to pay for it.”
The first issue is difficult because, for politicians, telling people to change what they eat can create “an enormous backlash” and reactions such as “Hey, you don’t tell me how I eat; I eat what I want”.
On top of that, “food is very emotional” and “there’s a lot of values behind” it, said the Austrian official, a veterinarian by training, warning that a “heated debate is unavoidable”.
The debate, he stressed, should go beyond the supply side: “We have to look at the demand side”, at changing food consumption patterns.
But that second point – the “true cost” of food” and “who pays for it” – is also sensitive.
According to Url, “Consumers can say that food prices are already high because of inflation”. But in Url’s view, “either the consumer pays, or the taxpayer has to pay via subsidies. There is no other way”.
He said the dialogue launched by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen “might help to talk about these questions”, though EFSA is not directly involved.
On 25 January, a group of NGOs started a legal action against the reapproval of the controversial herbicide glyphosate, accusing EFSA of cherry-picking science with a systematic approach of giving more consideration to industry studies than to the scientific findings from academia.
“That’s not true,” Url said. As the risk assessors, we “don’t care who has commissioned the studies”.
In assessing the risks of a chemical substance, national food safety authorities and EFSA consider independent research and studies from the industry applying for the authorisation of the substance.
Industry must submit a set of data according to the internationally accepted guidelines of the OECD.
“We look at how reliable and important a scientific work is in the context we look at,” Url explained.
“For some aspects, like carcinogenicity studies, the OECD guideline studies do have a big weight because they are big studies” with a “high statistical power, and academia usually cannot afford to do these studies because they are expensive”.
The NGOs criticise this very aspect as they deem EFSA is giving excessive importance to research following the OECD guidelines, which do not keep pace with the most advanced research.
Url said that “there’s always a tension between the predictability” for the industry given by the OECD guidelines and “the rush of academic research to detect a new effect”.
But “I see these the two streams, OECD guidelines and academia, complementing each other”.
“Even if a substance is approved, if new evidence comes up from academia, the Commission can ask EFSA to assess it”, Url said, reiterating that “the allegation that we would put more weight on industry studies is absolutely wrong”.
He stressed that how fast scientific insight is translated into regulatory action is ultimately “a policy decision”: it depends on “the risk appetite of the society, and I think Europe goes a good way”.
More Europe and faster
Asked about the changes in EFSA in the last 10 years, Url mentioned improvements in “transparency and independence, thanks to the push of NGOs and the European Parliament” and in the collaboration “at the international level” with other regulatory bodies, such as the Food and Drug Administration in the USA and Health Canada.
But he called for a greater alignment of national and EU regulatory bodies so “that we don’t duplicate work, but we do it once in a European effort”.
“The toxicological properties of a specific chemical are the same in Spain, in France, and Sweden, there is no difference […] It’s very difficult to explain why we assess this molecule in different member states and at the European level”, he said.
In recent years, Url recalled, the glyphosate controversy “landed on the table of Mr Macron, in 2017 it was on the table of Mrs Merkel”, and “still, we do not have enough European alignment”.
“We need more Europe. The collaboration with the member states is good, but it has to become better”, Url said, pointing to the pharmaceutical sector, which “works like a Swiss clock”.
“The member states competent authorities have done enormous work for the European Medicines Agency – Url explained – and EMA redistributes €200 million per year to the member states, so there’s a real collaborative approach. All of Europe works together with EMA and at the national level”.
In the case of pesticides, Url stressed, greater integration is important to have “enough European resources to be fast enough to have up-to-date guidance documents, also given low-risk pesticides, alternatives to chemical pesticides, which we will need for the transformation to sustainable agriculture”.
Another improvement is the quickness of response. “We have positive feedback for the excellence of our science, but this comes at a price, we are not fast enough, so the balance between excellence and speed is something we are working on internally”.
“That’s a challenge for my successor.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]