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Ridley: The EU's Absurd Risk Aversion Stifles New Ideas

Blog Post | Health & Medical Care

Ridley: The EU's Absurd Risk Aversion Stifles New Ideas

Excessive regulations suppress medical and environmental benefits of new technology.

With tariffs announced against Brazil and Argentina, and a threat against France, Donald Trump is dragging the world deeper into a damaging trade war. Largely unnoticed, the European Union is also in trouble at the World Trade Organisation for its continuing and worsening record as a protectionist bloc.

Last month, at the WTO meeting in Geneva, India joined a list of countries including Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Malaysia that have lodged formal complaints against the EU over barriers to agricultural imports. Not only does the EU raise hefty tariffs against crops such as rice and oranges to protect subsidised European farmers; it also uses health and safety rules to block imports. The irony is that these are often dressed up as precautionary measures against health and environmental threats, when in fact they are sometimes preventing Europeans from gaining health and environmental benefits.

The WTO complaints accuse the EU of “unnecessarily and inappropriately” restricting trade through regulatory barriers on pesticide residues that violate international scientific standards and the “principle of evidence”. Worse, they say, “it appears that the EU is unilaterally attempting to impose its own domestic regulatory approach on to its trading partners”, disproportionately harming farmers in the developing nations whose livelihoods depend on agriculture.

The problem is that the EU, unlike the rest of the world, bases its regulations on “hazard”, the possibility that a chemical could conceivably cause, say, cancer, even if only at impossibly high doses. WTO rules by contrast require a full “risk” analysis that takes into account likely exposure. Coffee, apples, pears, lettuce, bread and many other common foods that are part of a healthy diet contain entirely natural molecules that at high enough doses would be carcinogenic. Alcohol, for instance, is a known carcinogen at very high doses, though perfectly safe in moderation. The absurdity of the EU approach can be seen in the fact that if wine were sprayed on vineyards as a pesticide, it would have to be banned under a hazard-based approach.

This is all part of the EU’s insistence on using an especially strong version of the precautionary principle, as required by the Lisbon Treaty. Along with diverging from international scientific standards, this creates an insurmountable bias against new innovations, as anything new presents hypothetical risks, while the hazards of existing technologies are not assessed in the same way. Ironically, the precautionary principle will make it impossible to develop innovative technologies that can promote human health, improve the environment and protect biodiversity. Everything has potential downsides: what should count is the balance between risk and benefit.

Germany plans to phase out the use of glyphosate herbicide by 2023 and the European Commission is moving towards a ban, though not on other more toxic herbicides. This is one of the issues that has brought thousands of German farmers on to the streets in protest. Glyphosate has repeatedly been shown to be less toxic to animals than coffee, even at high doses, let alone at the doses people in practice encounter. This has been confirmed by the European Food Safety Authority and its equivalents in America, Australia and elsewhere.

This problem matters because glyphosate (better known as Roundup) is a valuable tool in conservation, used for protecting habitats from invasive alien weeds. Moreover, throughout the Americas today glyphosate used as part of “minimal tillage” replaces ploughing as a means of controlling weeds. This results in better soil structure, less soil erosion, less damage to soil fauna, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, more carbon storage and better water retention.

By protecting old-fashioned farming practices, such as ploughing, or the use of much more toxic pesticides by organic farmers, such as copper sulphate, the EU is effectively imposing lower environmental standards on its citizens than in some other parts of the world. This makes a mockery of some Remainer claims that leaving the EU will result in a lowering of our environmental standards.

The EU has effectively banned genetically modified crops by requiring impossibly complex, uncertain and lengthy procedures for their approval, and has now ruled that even gene-edited crops (where no “foreign” genetic material is added) must be subject to the same draconian regulations. Crops produced by random bombardment with gamma rays, a less predictable process, are exempt, merely because that is an older technology.

Most maize, cotton and soya bean in the Americas is grown with a gene inserted from a bacterium that kills certain insects but is harmless to humans. It protects the crop against pests but leaves “innocent civilian” insects such as butterflies unharmed. There has been a noticeable improvement in biodiversity in and around such genetically modified crops elsewhere in the world. The greatest irony is that the gene in question, known as Bt, is derived from a bacterium that has been used as an organic pesticide by organic growers for almost a century.

European protectionism does not only discriminate against poor countries, raise costs for domestic consumers and damage the competitiveness of domestic producers. Increasingly it also results in lower environmental standards.

This article was reposted with permission from Rational Optimist

BBC | Pollution

Plastic-Choked Rivers in Ecuador Are Being Cleared with Conveyor Belts

“Plastic pollution in the open sea is a growing concern…

Research shows that up to 80% of this plastic is carried out to sea via rivers, mainly due to the mismanagement of waste on land.

But a growing number of innovators, like Grønneberg, are trying to stop this flow.

The Azure system is a boom device that stretches across the river to stop objects floating on the surface. It extends down 60cm (2ft) into the water, allowing fish and other organisms to move freely below, and is placed at an angle allowing the natural water flow to direct all debris into one corner of the riverbank.

A manual operator in the water then guides the debris onto a mobile conveyor belt that dumps the plastic into a large container on shore, where it is sorted for recycling and trash destined for landfill.

But Ichthion doesn’t only pick up debris in the river, it also tries to stop it from arriving there in the first place by documenting and generating data about what is collected. This way they can better identify the source of the garbage, whether it be mounds of industrial waste from factories, or bags of household trash that indicates a problem with the municipal garbage system. The data allows them to work with municipalities, businesses and communities to stop the problem.”

From BBC.

BBC | Conservation & Biodiversity

Conservation: Rare Caribbean Wildlife Species Saved from Extinction

“Have you heard of the Antiguan racer, the White cay rock iguana and the Sombrero ground lizard?

They’re all rare species that have been brought back from the brink of extinction in the Caribbean.

The Caribbean islands, home to thousands of rare animals, have suffered the highest extinction rates in modern history.

But conservationists that have been working to protect nature and animals in the region for over 30 years have now restored their thirtieth island, helping to save over 12 more species.

Here’s a look at some of the animals they’re helping to survive.”

From BBC.

BBC | Conservation & Biodiversity

One of World’s Rarest Cats No Longer Endangered

“One of the world’s rarest cats, the Iberian lynx, is no longer classed as endangered, according to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

On Thursday the IUCN, which categorises species according to the level of risk they face in a ‘red list’, bumped the Iberian lynx from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ after a significant surge in numbers.

Its population grew from 62 mature individuals in 2001 to 648 in 2022. While young and mature lynx combined now have an estimated population of more than 2,000, the IUCN reports.”

From BBC.

Telegraph | Conservation & Biodiversity

The British Birds Saved from the Brink of Extinction

“If you look up to the skies of Sussex, you might be lucky enough to catch sight of something that hasn’t been seen for more than 600 years: a stork, fledged from a nearby nest. With their enormous wingspan, it’s hard to mistake them for anything else and the last time they were resident in England was just a year after the Battle of Agincourt.”

From The Telegraph.