Check against delivery.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am grateful for the opportunity to address this conference – and in particular to speak about the critical issue of the role of science in relation to EU decision making in the food policy area.
This is an issue of particular personal interest for me, taking in the question of public attitudes to science, progress and innovation and the broader issue of how we can encourage a more open public discourse about the nature and communication of risk.
Let me say at the outset that I am strong supporter of science and of progress and innovation. This approach was fundamental to my previous career as a medical doctor and surgeon, where new and improved methods and treatments continue to point the way forwards to a better future.
Similarly, in my current role as European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety I rely on the best available science to underpin my basic policy approach in striving to better serve European citizens.
My first responsibility is, of course, to act to ensure the proper and rigorous protection of citizens.
As regards food, public attitudes and concerns have clearly evolved in recent decades. People expect and demand not only safe but also nutritious, healthy food produced in a sustainable and ethical way.
This is of course a welcome development, but in parallel, consumers have become increasingly risk averse tending to favour tradition over innovation.
This reticence to embrace new methods and approaches clashes with the need for food systems to evolve and meet the challenges of today and tomorrow:
to produce enough food to feed a growing world population from a finite or even shrinking area of agricultural land;
to become more sustainable;
to contribute to climate change efforts;
to contribute to a circular economy; and also
to reduce food waste and work together on food reformulation, marketing, better nutrition.
These objectives simply cannot be achieved by standing still, or by looking to the past for inspiration. Instead we need a positive, forward looking approach to food production.
We need to address and confront the widely held suspicion, mistrust and even hostility towards science and evidence-based decisions on new products; on substances; and on new methods of food production.
If we fail, there is a real danger of European society becoming progressively more "anti-science".
This is a difficult challenge – when carefully considered scientific assessments are often dismissed out of hand, with many people more likely to pay attention to emotional, one-sided campaigns conducted via social media.
The troubled story of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is perhaps the classic example of such a breakdown in public trust.
I am sure you would agree that it is important that the EU remains a place where innovation can thrive, especially in the field of biotechnologies, so that our agriculture can remain competitive without compromising on our high safety standards.
But what we have seen recently is a growing lack of public confidence in the rigorous scientific safety assessments of the products placed on the European market.
The Commission's efforts to change our authorisation system have been met, so far, with resistance as it remains politically convenient for some to evade direct responsibility and hide behind the Commission, which is forced to take a position where no qualified majority can be found for or against a draft authorisation decision.
The use of chemicals in agriculture and for pest control is a particularly problematic area.
These substances provide numerous benefits to agriculture and society. However, to exclude that human and environmental exposure to hazardous chemicals represent an unacceptable risk to health we have a comprehensive body of legislation in place which seeks to authorise only products which have successfully passed a rigorous risk assessment, so that a high level of human health protection can be ensured.
Moreover, we have removed many substances from the market over recent years further enhancing public and environmental safety.
However, the current hot topics of glyphosate and endocrine disruptors are examples of where the Commission is taking principled measured approaches based purely on science, yet we find ourselves constantly under attack.
In most of these science-related issues, people tend to look for "black and white" answers where almost always a degree of "grey" – of "uncertainty" – is inevitable.
This uncertainty can sow the seeds of doubt in people's minds and can be exploited by the media to sensationally highlight certain risks, or latched on to by stakeholders or pressure groups trying to force a pre-determined position (such as against pesticides in general).
We must recognise that risk and uncertainty are part and parcel of every decision we take. We need to engage people in a serious and rational debate.
But in this world of information overload – from old media and new – information, misinformation, opinions, prejudices, truths, half-truths and un-truths all compete for public attention.
Of course, it is very important to take the concerns of European citizens seriously and to address them properly – but that must be done in an appropriate way, defending principles of taking decisions based on the best available science and in a transparent manner.
We need better communication of science so that people can be better informed about issues, risk management decisions and also about benefits that the progress in science brings.
We must fight the erosion and the misrepresentation of science so as to keep people abreast of developments, embracing new opportunities and overcoming the fear of change.
For example, it is important to have a wide-ranging and informed public debate on risk and science that can draw the public's attention to the possible benefits and risks of new techniques in agricultural biotechnology.
This debate must encompass environmental groups, consumers, industry, farmers, academia, policy-makers and citizens at large.
The Commission is therefore organising a high-level conference in September, open to all stakeholders and available to citizens across Europe through live-streaming. This will be an excellent opportunity to launch a broad public debate on this issue.
In addition, I have engaged the Commission's Scientific Advice Mechanism – a group of well-renowned European Scientists – to provide an explanatory note on the latest scientific knowledge on new techniques in agricultural biotechnology.
This note, which was recently published, can serve to bring a greater understanding of the techniques and serve as a basis for informed debate.
It is important that all policy-makers and stakeholders together take responsibility and ownership of the issues surrounding new techniques. This way we can find ways to reap the benefits from innovation while ensuring high safety standards.
In the field of chemicals, we have taken steps over the past year to enhance public protection and increase public confidence.
In the first instance, independent agencies such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) provide comprehensive risk analyses on the basis of which risk management decisions are taken.
Such decisions, however, are generally taken on a case by case basis, meaning there may be a lack of harmonised information at European level concerning the exposure of people to multiple chemicals and their possible inter-reactions.
Indeed, all of us are exposed to a complex mixture of chemicals in our daily lives through – for example – food, drinking water, the environment, food contact materials as well as other products.
For many chemicals, the health impacts over a lifetime associated with exposure remain to a certain extent unknown. In addition, the understanding of the health impacts of exposure to mixtures of chemicals is limited.
This is why the EU has recently launched a Human Biomonitoring initiative, which will provide a horizontal approach to provide a better, more holistic picture of the exposure of humans to chemicals. The Joint Programme will:
- harmonise procedures for human biomonitoring across the European Union and provide comparable data on human exposure to chemicals and mixtures of chemicals at EU level;
- make it possible to link exposure to chemicals to pathways and sources of exposure at EU level;
- generate scientific evidence on the causal links between human exposure to chemicals and adverse health effects; and
- enhance the Commission's ability to take evidence-based, targeted risk management measures to reduce chemical exposure and better protect human health.
I also hope that the European Human Biomonitoring Initiative will, more broadly, contribute to restoring public trust in science.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me close by saying that the time has come for defenders of science to make their voices heard loud and clear.
Now is the time for public engagement and debate about matters of crucial importance.
We must avoid creating more myths, legends and conspiracy theories. We must foster and embrace innovation, keeping risk in its proper perspective whilst continuing to uphold consumer and environmental safety.
I would be glad if you invite farmers and other stakeholders to work together with you and play a vital role to advance the promotion and understanding of science wherever possible.