European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
"Risk versus benefit"
European Voice Conference "Farm to Fork"
Brussels, 22 November 2001
Are we in danger of being overcome by "risk paranoia"? Do we suffer from "risk dyslexia"? Are we weighed down by "risk overload"?
I am deadly serious when I pose these questions. I am not just being provocative. They are serious questions for policy makers, politicians and individuals.
Let me take the motor car as a case in point. We take car transport for granted. It is an everyday fact of life to drop the kids to school, to get to the office, to do the weekly shopping, and so much more.
Yet, almost 40,000 of our fellow citizens die on European roads every year. This is a shocking statistic.
Without doubt, the trend is on the way down. Public policy measures are having an effect. Safer cars, greater use of seat belts, less drink-driving, and speed reduction measures.
But the stark reality remains, twice the number of Commission officials are slaughtered on our roads every year. And still we do not have a collective "risk paranoia" on this issue.
Something within my own public health area also provides stark evidence of "risk dyslexia". Smoking cigarettes leads to the premature deaths of 500,000 people every single year in the European Union. That is the population of Dublin every two years.
Our anti-tobacco legislative activities are the backbone of our control strategy. Important legal instruments are in place. More are under preparation. These will be complemented by smoking prevention activities.
But in the battle to come we will need to widen our targets. We need to look increasingly at changing public attitudes to smoking. Particularly the image of smoking as a badge of cool among young people. And we need to generate a global climate of resistance, capable of dealing with this insidious menace. This menace is deliberate, calculating and deeply cynical about the value of human life.
A menace which, as we have seen in the recent exposure of "big tobaccos'" activities, even dares to advise governments to discount human suffering against the long- term budgetary benefits of premature death.
Let me now contrast the road and smoking death tolls with another policy area within my remit Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). To my knowledge, nobody has died from eating a GMO. Animals and humans have been eating GMO feed and food for years in the US without any obvious problems. The only exception being StarLink which was used in food when it should not have been.
But here in Europe we have been suffering from what might be called "GMO psychosis".
Despite our scientific advisors having given the green light for growing and marketing GMO plants and foods, our Member States have blocked new authorisations since 1998. This is, I believe, an untenable position.
What has struck me is the extent to which this debate is polarised. On both sides of the argument, key players have resorted to scare-mongering tactics, gross exaggerations and unsubstantiated claims.
I feel passionately that we need to get away from the emotional, the irrational and the bullying tactics if substantial progress is to be made. There are irrational fears of GM food in the EU and equally irrational fears in the US about how we in Europe are approaching the issue.
The effective moratorium on new approvals in the EU is an unfortunate situation and its continuation, in my personal view, helps nobody. It has serious implications for European industry, agriculture and research. It creates legal uncertainty. And it has had an impact on US exports to the EU. Although nothing near to the inflated and incorrect numbers of mega trade losses that have been ventilated in the US press.
The fact is that a number of EU Member States have since 1999 demanded a more stringent and transparent regulatory framework for marketing authorisations and a labelling and traceability regime for GMOs and GMO-derived products.
Their position is that pending the adoption of such rules, and in accordance with preventive and precautionary principles, new authorisations for growing and marketing of GM products should remain suspended.
As a result, the authorisation of both pending and new products has come to a grinding halt.
It is my firm intention to get the approvals process moving again. In March 2001 we put new environmental legislation on the statute book, providing a stricter and more transparent regulatory framework for deliberate releases of GMOs into the environment.
In July we put forward the proposals for traceability and labelling and for streamlining the authorisations of GM food and feed. These proposals have been generally well received by Members of the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers, who now need to discuss and adopt them.
For the moment, however, the exact timing and conditions for the resumption of authorisations remains undecided, to be resolved in further discussions. There are a host of pragmatic and legal issues that need to be addressed, but the Commission is determined to push the issue forward.
A lot of damage has been done by the polarisation of the GM issue. Hard-line positions have played into the hands of those who claim that the US wants to force-feed GM food to European citizens, without any consideration for their ethical concerns or consumer rights. Both industry and politicians now have to face the consequences of that.
Even with new approvals coming through and new safety laws in place, it will take time to get consumer confidence back.
With GMOs we have a very clear example of something that poses little if any risk but which has proved unacceptable.
There has been a massive communications' failure mainly on the part of industry I have to say.
But equally I would challenge politicians in our Member States. They too have to show leadership and courage. Are they telling me that they reject sound, independent and transparent scientific advice? If that is the case, then why do they so readily seek refuge in such advice on other issues? How do they see risk versus benefit? Are they only looking at the risk the ballot box presents?
I have spoken at length about GMOs by way of illustration of the policy makers' conundrum in the risk versus benefit debate. I also referred at the outset to the risks associated with driving cars and smoking cigarettes.
There are real issues involved here for European policy makers, for those at the level of Member States and for society at large. We can't have a risk free society. There is no such thing as zero risk. Yet we cannot have a free for all especially in areas touching on public health considerations.
We need deep reflection on these questions. Perhaps they are not capable of satisfactory resolution in a neat package.
As for risk assessment, I believe we are on the right track with the imminent establishment of the European Food Authority. But there too, the EFA will need to ensure that there is a considered and where possible quantified, approach to risk assessment.
But the biggest challenge, if not opportunity, is for risk managers. At this level, those of us involved must ensure that our responses are balanced, proportionate and effective. We must ensure that in solving our problems, we do not displace risk and cause other even more acute hazards. Integrated approaches must receive greater emphasis.
Communication about risk must be improved and be honest. Industry must play their role forcefully. Consumers and society generally must become actively involved in the debate. And politicians must square up to their leadership's responsibilities.
It is only in these circumstances that we can balance risk versus benefit.