Renate Künast on pesticide authorisation

09.01.2018 Green politician on pesticide authorisation: “I’m dumbfounded”

Glyphosate is harmless? It was not for such statements that Renate Künast founded the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in 2002 during her time as Federal Minister of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture.

taz: Ms Künast, fifteen years ago, as the Green party’s Federal Minister responsible for food, you founded the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). The Institute’s job is to provide information to the authorising authorities on how dangerous or safe pesticides such as glyphosate are. Are you ashamed of this today?
Renate Künast: What? What makes you ask that?

The BfR recently declared glyphosate to be harmless, which is why the EU has now re-authorised the active substance for five years – despite its classification by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as “probably carcinogenic”.
I am proud to have founded the institute, since it allowed us to separate the evaluation and management of risks. What I mean is that the BfR analyses the risk posed by a substance and other authorities subsequently decide whether it needs to be banned, for example. This was one of the lessons learnt from the BSE scandal, since the authorities at the time had denied for a long time the risks involved. The BfR, in contrast, is able to assess risks independently. It is not required – nor intended – to think about the economic or political impacts.

Is the BfR really that independent? In the relevant report on glyphosate, the Institute had simply copied and pasted whole passages from the manufacturer’s application for authorisation. The sources of these parts of the text were, at best, unclear; indeed some people say that the sources were not indicated at all.
This is something which I too must criticise. Independence and a scientific approach always means analysing something and reaching one’s own conclusions. The logical conclusion is thus that this identical wording did not occur by chance. So the authors of the BfR text have themselves helped to create doubts – based on facts – about whether they used sound methods.

Andreas Hensel, who you installed as head of the BfR, recently said in an interview with the Tagesspiegel newspaper “The assessment of the scientific community is crystal clear: glyphosate is not carcinogenic”. Yet the IARC, which brings together leading scientists in this field, takes a different view. Is Hensel still tenable as BfR President?
That’s not my decision to take. I will say one thing, though: he is certainly not doing the BfR any favours with such statements, since they are untrue. There are different scientists with different mandates. The authorities responsible for authorisation in the EU or USA have to use the studies carried out by the pesticide manufacturers, but are not allowed to publish them. Monsanto and the other manufacturers fought hard for this: because of course no critical questions can be asked or analysis carried out of a study which is secret. So citizens are left without a clue. The IARC, in contrast, cites data which is in the public arena and has a broader mandate. This is something which Mr Hensel ought to explain. Yet he acts as if he was the top scientist with the broadest range of scientific studies. Instead of calling for instance for all studies on the active ingredients to be published, the BfR simply berates its critics.

Hensel says that the true problems faced are not those of pesticide residues. He claims that the risks posed by poor hygiene in the kitchen by “killer cloths” contaminated with germs, for instance, are much greater. Is he playing down the dangers of pesticides?
Mr Hensel cannot get out of this by citing a different risk. We can’t ban private kitchens, but we can ban glyphosate. We are creating a world contaminated with chemicals in addition to the normal risks which a household has. Chemicals have an effect on the human body, especially on small children. Allowing this is completely irresponsible! I am dumbfounded that Mr Hensel should react by talking about kitchen cloths, or whatever.

The BfR accuses the opponents of glyphosate and GMOs of seeking to exert political influence on scientists. Do you accept this criticism?
No, because I do not believe that scientists have a monopoly on the truth. Especially not when the issues examined by the studies in question are not sufficiently broad, as is the case here. Thanks to the work of lobbyists, the authorisation procedures are strongly geared towards the interests of the applicants. It must be okay to question, for example, whether the scientists are using sound methodology. This is necessary, as we saw with the copy-and-paste scandal.

If there are so many deficits regarding authorisation of pesticides, can we be sure at all that we are not being poisoned by our food?
I certainly do not trust the usual bland reassurances. That is why I campaign for more organic food. It is better both for human health and natural resources.

What does the BfR need to do differently in the future?
After fifteen years, the BfR should say “stop” and should spearhead efforts to bring about a new procedure for the authorisation of pesticides. It needs to say: we want all studies to be made public and for them to be carried out independently of industry. In future, the long-term effects of pesticides need to be studied more carefully – including the effects of subsidiary active ingredients. After all, glyphosate is not sold in a pure form, but is only one central substance, amongst others, contained in Roundup weedkiller, for example. There are indications that harmful effects may be multiplied, or new harmful effects created, where several substances are combined. And, finally, the BfR must call for an end to authorisation tourism. Manufacturers being able to choose themselves which country is to assess their pesticides diminishes independence.

Hensel has already pointed to problems with the authorisation procedure, though: at a Bundestag hearing on glyphosate, for example
Yes. But he does not act accordingly. He ought to repeat this again and again in interviews or at hearings in the European Parliament, saying “our mandate is not comprehensive and is too limited”. Instead, he is saying the opposite with great fanfare: claiming that it is crystal clear amongst scientists that glyphosate is not dangerous. And where is the initiative by the BfR to push for transparent public analysis of the Monsanto papers, which were revealed in a US lawsuit and show the exertion of influence and inadequate research mandates?

Why do you not tell that to the people at the BfR in person?
I already have done, at the event marking the fifteenth anniversary of the BfR’s founding. After my speech, lots of scientists from the BfR came up to me and said: we agree. This surprised me. And it is encouraging.

Renate Künast is 62 years old. From 2001 to 2005, she was the first Green politician to become Federal Minister of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture. During her time in office, she established the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). She is currently a Member of the Bundestag

(English translation)