Europe drunk on anti-chemical ideology

21 Mar, 2016 06:35 AM
European farmers are facing a tough battle to defend their production methods, especially the use of chemicals like glyphosate, despite the weight of scientific proof.
European farmers are facing a tough battle to defend their production methods, especially the use of chemicals like glyphosate, despite the weight of scientific proof.

WHEN touring Germany, the last news-story any Australian wants to hear about and be forced to digest is one about an apparent link between glyphosate and beer.

Given the European country is world-famous for brewing brilliant beers and currently holds the football World Cup title, at first glance it was impossible to understand how such an own-goal could be scored.

However, the sobering reality of the story was soon revealed, even if the truth seemed harder to find given the varied, intoxicated sources.

Last month the Munich Environmental Institute released information claiming testing showed that 14 of the European nation’s most highly consumed beers contained traces of the popular pesticide used by farmers in cropping systems, world-wide.

The reports sparked instant outrage and reignited calls for a total ban on glyphosate by some grandstanding politicians.

But Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment defended the allegations saying an adult would need to drink around 1000 litres of beer a day to ingest enough quantities of the chemical, to harm their health.

The attack on Germany’s brewing prowess arrived shortly after another significant public controversy involving a penalty shot aimed at Roundup’s credibility.

Last year, the World Health Organisation's cancer research committee said glyphosate was probably carcinogenic to humans - but the European Food Safety Authority defended the goal-line, saying the chemical was unlikely to cause cancer.

However, with lingering allegations of cancer causation, and the sour taste that’s been placed in the mouths of beer drinkers, the battle against glyphosate is far from over throughout Europe.

Speaking to German farmers this month while touring facilities linked to the Herbicide Innovation Partnership (HIP) between Australia’s Grains Research and Development Corporation and Bayer, their frustrations at the ongoing claims were obvious.

On the one hand glyphosate has been cleared by credible scientific authorities as safe to use and is regarded as a vital tool in the battle against weeds in food production systems.

But on the other side of the fence, retailers are ignoring the science and reacting to consumer fears, whipped up by compliant media sources, and shamefully pulling product from their shelves.

Glyphosate has been used successfully to control weeds over the past two decades but calls for its prohibition are now being driven by demands to apply the precautionary - zero risk - principle.

If that same principle was applied to Germany’s Cup winning team in 2014, players and officials would have never left the team bus for fear of suffering injuries or a potential riot in the grand stands or having any number of goals scored against them.

Does it sound silly to ban glyphosate in Germany and Europe when respected scientists have declared it safe?

Well, this is a region of the world where you can accurately program the GPS coordinates in your vehicle and arrive in another country, at a municipality called Asse.

Just like Australia – an ongoing and often emotionally-driven debate exists between German consumers and primary producers over ‘natural’ and ‘industrial’ farming methods, used to produce food.

What do Germany’s farmers think about emotionally charged calls by some politicians and green groups to ban Roundup from use by private citizens and in farming systems?

Mostly, they try not to think about it; especially given Genetically Modified crops are also blacklisted, despite proven efficacy over the past two decades.

However, it’s a problem they can’t afford to ignore as their profitability comes under continual strain, despite being heavily subsidised and boasting yields of 10 to 12 tonnes in wheat crops basking in moisture.

German farmers did, however, offer some sharp views about the inherent policy and regulatory contradictions they’re forced to endure as viability becomes tougher.

They live in a country where you can still smoke cigarettes in a public bar - or a cigar the size of a German sausage, while possibly sitting next to a pregnant woman - despite the proven human health impacts of tobacco and nicotine.

Unlike Australia, cigarette advertising also remains legal and visible in public to coerce people of all ages and nationalities.

Consumers can also drive into a petrol station or call into their local super market or corner store and buy alcohol or tobacco, at their convenience.

But ask for a serve of Roundup and you’ll be reprimanded and issued the equivalent of a red card by an angry referee who misunderstands the rules of the game.

Exactly how many people have died from glyphosate consumption in comparison to cigarette and alcohol related diseases over many more decades, one can only imagine.

Bayer board member Kemal Malik - responsible for innovation at the global human health and crop protection giant - said a very different philosophy existed in Europe about chemical use.

Talk about understatement.

Mr Malik said if he was so inclined, and wanted to purchase Roundup from his local garden centre in Germany, to spray weeds at home, the product was kept behind a locked cage.

He said “you can’t buy it” and any use outside of prescribed regulations, would result in a fine.

He recounted the story of a British friend who recently visited the local store to buy Roundup and was “harangued” by the local shop keeper who said ‘you should be ashamed of yourself’.

Mr Malik said there was a large and vocal anti-big-business sentiment in Europe which represented a problem because, ultimately, those companies created jobs and wealth which assisted tax generation for social security, education and other public benefits.

“If you speak to the average guy in the street and said ‘Do you trust, Company X be it Bayer, Dupont or Monsanto, or do you trust Greenpeace?’ sadly here most people would say here they trust Greenpeace and that’s the reality of the situation,” he said.

Bayer Crop Science Global head of research and development Adrian Percy said modern society had removed itself from agriculture largely and did not understand the sector or what companies like Bayer do.

“It’s really our responsibility, collectively, to do what we can to explain to the public, that what we do is safe and is actually benefitting mankind,” he said.

“As scientists we have a big responsibility to reach out to stakeholders, be open about what we do, and to explain the best way we can about what we do with our technologies and why we believe they’re beneficial not just to farmers but also to the public in terms of producing good quality food.”

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


21/03/2016 11:14:43 AM

Maybe its because the rest of us are asleep? the journals their safety studies appear in are funded in part by the companies selling the product (eg the Journal of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology ), so to the regulators such as our own APVMA, the studies only really measure acute toxicity as most are too short for chronic conditions to become apparent, scientists who speak up find their research funds dry up, a revolving door exists bw regulators (eg USFDA and Monsanto), etc. If we as farmers really want to sell more grain, we need accurate toxicity assessment, life exp would explode.
Rural Realist
21/03/2016 3:26:19 PM

WTF I appreciate your skepticism, however chemical companies are often enticed/forced to fund studies as part of regulatory processes, even though the universities running the projects are completely independent. There is still a lot of completely financial independent studies out there. The sad thing is that a byproduct of knee-jerk reactions and blanket rulings on chemical application will come with a host of feedbacks; more tillage, greater fuel use, lower production, greater portion of food imported (from countries with different agchem regimes) and therefore more food miles.
21/03/2016 10:48:14 PM

The reality is there isn't a mass die off of farmers occurring. You know the guys that actually handle this stuff? Safe as houses. It's not like we have much ability to choose a world without glyphosate with 7 billion mouths to keep from turning into middle class roasting barbarians.
23/03/2016 9:42:07 AM

RR, u put forward the idea our unis do their own research into these chemicals, I refer u to Scitox (2013) assessment "a review of the EOS report Roundup and Birth defects", no where can I find such studies u refer to. Most are from regulators such as the US EPA and JPMR. These bodies, relied on industry provided studies, not only that, employees at them in the early 80s have since reported they were not allowed to do their own studies, they had to cut and paste the conclusions the chemical companies reached. Our ADI is still the 1980 Monsanto supplied figure, change? fear not, its just games.
20/04/2016 3:40:56 AM

RR upon consideration u are right there is the chance of an over reaction to chemical safety. An examination into the events around Port Arthur and the Live Export shutdown prove that when topics are emotive the govt is more than happy to do away with due process. Further evidenced by their policies such as floating the dollar, FTAs and listing of the Comm bank as examples of policies undertaken with no financial/social assessment undertaken.


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