Less Risk, More Bodily Harm?

Story Stream
recent articles

Here's an idea: Let's ban burgers -- and the fries that go along with them. And while we're at it, let's ban the lager to wash them down.

No, this isn't a parody of one of Mayor Bloomberg's ideas for saving you from your inner glutton. All those yummy ingestibles (plus many others) contain substances that can cause cancer at extremely high exposure levels. Regulators haven't (yet) trained their sights on comfort food. But the European Union is moving rapidly to ban pesticides that are no more likely to cause cancer than foods we swallow daily. And their success is likely to have unintended consequences on both sides of the Atlantic, arguably leaving people at more risk rather than less.

Back up for a moment. For some time the EU has been moving away from "risk-based" regulation in agriculture -- that is, away from looking at how chemicals are actually used in determining their impact on the food chain. Instead, it has adopted what's known in the lingo as a "precautionary" approach, in which any chemical that lab tests show might cause harm in some context is treated with extreme skepticism.

The result has been a two-thirds drop in the number of pesticides available to EU farmers. And the weeding-out process has accelerated since Europe adopted new pesticide regulation (known to bureaucrats as No. 1107/2009).

At the heart of the problem are the "exclusionary criteria" in the new rules, one of which is for carcinogenicity. The EU requires companies to test potential cancer-causing molecules at extraordinarily high doses. And, as is the case with some of the compounds found in beer and coffee, many otherwise-benign ingredients prove to be carcinogens at exposures hundreds or thousands of times higher than one would encounter in real life. Industry sources predict that the number of pesticides available will fall by half again or more as regulatory reviews discover high-dose carcinogenicity.

Limiting the chemical arsenal so drastically would almost certainly raise the cost of food. For example, a number of studies suggest that the anticipated ban on the class of fungicides called azoles could reduce the EU wheat crop by some 19 million tons annually by 2020.

Now, it's true that most of the research in this area has been funded by industry trade groups. But those favoring the new rules haven't rebutted them. For that matter, why would they bother? The rules don't allow economic factors to be weighed against health, no matter how remote.

This looming problem will be compounded by the reality that the smaller number of permissible ingredients will make it more likely that pests will evolve resistance to the compounds left on the market, just as germs develop resistance to antibiotics after long exposure. And greater resistance means lower crop yields.

Note an irony here. Pesticides considered even marginal risks to health are banned. Yet the resulting increases in farm costs are bound to lead to lower consumption of fruits and vegetables, which are widely viewed as bulwarks against cancer and cardiovascular disease. Indeed, the consumption of fruits and vegetables seems especially sensitive to affordability: sales in Europe have dropped by 10 percent since the beginning of the recession.

Ready for another irony? Toxic chemicals that aren't deemed potential carcinogens are more likely to pass regulatory hurdles because they are spared these extremely exacting tests under EU rules. In effect, then, the regulations give agri-tech companies incentives to favor chemicals that could present greater risks than the current batch.

It's not hard to explain why the EU went down this path. Often the only practical way to test for toxicity is to expose animals to massive doses. But once evidence of high-dose carcinogenicity is found, regulators are loath to discount the likely impact just because human ingestion would be in far smaller doses.

Nor is it hard to see why the EU approach could easily go viral. If EU farmers are barred from using pesticide X, will the EU permit imports of food (or animal feed) that is grown with pesticide X? At best, the question will be answered by a case before the World Trade Organization; at worst, the conflict would be resolved by the adoption of EU rules in export-oriented countries including the United States.

Everyone makes peace with the fact that they must bear some risk in order to get what they want. Otherwise, they would never bring themselves to cross the street or take a bath. But few elected officials - or the regulators serving at their pleasure - are openly prepared to look at both sides of this risk-reward equation. That said, the fact remains that taking the path of least political resistance can actually make people less safe rather than more.

It all makes one want to sooth one's frustration in a burger with all the trimmings - or a bottle or two of a potentially lethal alcoholic beverage.

Robert Hahn is director of economics and professor at the Smith School, University of Oxford. Peter Passell is a senior fellow at the Milken Institute and editor of the Milken Institute Review. The authors co-founded Regulation2point0.org, a web portal on economic regulation.

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles