Most Spaniards believe that the main risk of their food is pesticide residues and chemical substances. The same is true for most citizens of the European Union, according to The latest Eurobarometer on the subject, published in 2010. Meanwhile, less than half of the population is concerned about the "biggest food problem facing Europe": the overabundance of calories and the obesity epidemic it causes, says Bernhard Url, director of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA, for its acronym in English). In this list of perceptions also appear food poisonings, which are "the greatest real danger" posed by food.
This veterinarian born in Kapfenberg (Austria), in 1961, went to farmer, but ended up specializing in food safety. Since 2014 he has headed the EU body in charge of issuing scientific studies on pathogens, contaminants and other compounds present in food for politicians to make evidence-based decisions. It is not an easy job and often become the target of attacks, as has happened recently with glyphosate, the most used herbicide on the planet. Visiting Madrid to meet with the Minister of Health, Luisa Carcedo, Url reflects in this interview on unfounded fears and the real risks posed by food in Europe.
Question. What do you eat, what do not eat and why?
The way we treat animals is a mirror of the maturity of our society, and from an ethical point of view, I think we could improve more
Answer. Like everything. I have no fear of eating anything because the level of food safety in Europe is very high. Like less and less meat because I'm concerned about animal welfare and because I think it's healthier. The way we treat animals is a mirror of the maturity of our society, and from an ethical point of view, I think we could improve more.
P. Could the current consumption of meat be combined with a more humane treatment?
R. The question is not whether we can afford to maintain the current model, but whether we want to. We will have to feed 10 billion people in the near future. For this you have to do at least three things. One, help the developing countries. Much agricultural production is lost due to lack of infrastructure, logistics and knowledge. Second: in Europe we waste 30% of the food. It is an ethical scandal. The third is to change our eating habits. We can not continue to consume so many animal proteins. Livestock production consumes too much energy, extension of land and water and produces too many emissions. My advice is: eat less animals and more plants. This would be healthy for people, for the planet and for the 800 million people who go to bed hungry because they have nothing to eat.
In Europe, we waste 30% of the food. It is an ethical scandal
P. Can everyone access that diet?
R. Access to fresh foods is a key social aspect. It is also a question of inequality. In the US there are food deserts where it is impossible to find fresh food for five miles around [8 kilómetros], and this is compounded by the question of whether they can afford them. In Europe there also seem to be these deserts, although this issue is not the competence of the EFSA and, therefore, we do not have data. Organic fruit and vegetables cost more and there are people who can not afford them.
P. Is the organic always better?
R. In terms of security there are no differences. In terms of nutrients, probably not either. Organic agriculture has sustainability advantages.
The greatest dangers are food poisoning, bacterial and viral. There are possibly millions of poisonings every year in Europe that could be prevented with hygiene and control
P. Does organic agriculture always have less environmental impact? For example, compounds with copper are used as pesticides that are toxic.
R. In general, yes. The way in which the soil is used, the crops are rotated, is much more natural. The use of copper is an issue that we have been interested in. We see copper pollution problems for the environment and also for amphibians, birds and other organisms. You have to study it more.
P. What is the biggest food problem we face in Europe?
R. The excess of nutrients. The obesity. Overnutrition and malnutrition in the developed world are our biggest challenges.
P. Should we worry about the content of fertilizers or chemicals in food?
What kind of agriculture do we want? Do we want pesticides or not? If we do, where are the risks and who benefits from it? It is a political discussion. It's not about science, but about values, about economics. We should not mix it with evidence-based science
R. In Europe, all additives must be evaluated before approval. All the approved ones are in a list and must be accepted again every 10 years after another evaluation. The zero risk does not exist, but in this field it is very, very low. The greatest dangers are food poisoning, bacterial and viral. There are possibly millions of poisonings every year in Europe that could be prevented with hygiene and control. In chemical waste, for example pesticides, we have developed maximum residue limits and annually we make a European report. The latter indicates that more than 97% of the food is below the maximum threshold. 50% does not have any residue. Only 2.4% is above. The situation is very good. The only doubt now is the possible combined action of chemical products. EFSA has been studying these additive effects for years. Together with Holland we will publish the first two reports of combined effects of pesticide residues in two human organs, the thyroid gland and the nervous system. We are still working on them and based on the results it is possible that some maximum limits have to be readjusted.
Do we need strawberries from South America, New Zealand kiwis, all the possible fruits and vegetables of the world throughout the year?
P. There is plastics in our food? What is its effect on health?
R. They are there, it is a fact. We still do not know if they have a toxicological impact on the tissues. The Scientific Advisory Service of the European Union is working on an opinion that will be published at the end of the year.
P. Are unfounded fears about food increasing?
R. Yes, there is concern in the citizens. They think how can it be that my son's urine has glyphosate? We tell you: the concentration is so low that there is no risk. People answer: but I do not want my children's urine to have glyphosate. This brings us to another question: What kind of agriculture do we want? Do we want pesticides or not? If we do, where are the risks and who benefits from it? It is a political discussion. It's not about science, but about values, about economics. We should not mix it with evidence-based science. In addition there is another aspect. The food is no longer produced in the neighbor's field. It comes from New Zealand, from Chile, from Canada. The complexity of supply chains makes absolute control impossible. We do not know where the food comes from and we have to rely on a complex food processing machinery. In the end, if we want to eat we have to trust. This makes people feel insecure.
P. How to restore their confidence?
R. The industry has lost the confidence of consumers. The food industry also has a reputation problem. Remember the case of horse meat, it was not dangerous to health, but a deception. And then we have to ask ourselves: do we need strawberries from South America, New Zealand kiwis, all the possible fruits and vegetables of the world throughout the year? Maybe we could re-regionalize agricultural production. The regionalization has seals of quality, suitable animal treatment, et cetera and the industry is trying to recover that confidence through this type of guarantee seals
P. Will transgenics be necessary to feed 10 billion people?
R. I believe that if we make good programs to avoid losses after bad harvests, we avoid the waste of food in the so-called developed world and change our eating habits, we can go very far without GMOs. There may be specific applications in cases of drought or resistance, although I do not see its use in Europe at present.
P. How to avoid throwing away so much food, especially supermarkets?
Among the people who lived in Europe after the Second World War, food had much more value, why do not you have it now?
R. It is a question of attitude, of making better plans and of changing our behavior. On the farm where I grew up, a piece of bread was never thrown. My mother saw it as a sin. Among the people who lived in Europe after the Second World War, food had much more value, why do not you have it now? It's about education, about making people aware of the problem. It is not that the way we live today makes it impossible not to throw food. Regarding large surfaces, there are laws. In France, supermarkets are obliged to sell foods that are going to expire to food banks to be used. It does not make sense to send them to sub-Saharan Africa, that would not work, and in Europe we have enough people with few resources. 23% of Europeans live to the limit of poverty.
P. Could all European agriculture be organic?
R. I do not think we can replace conventional agriculture 100%, but in some countries it reaches 20% and I think that it could even reach 30%. When institutions like hospitals or schools start buying organic, it makes a big difference.
P. How serious is it the epidemic of Xylella Fastidiosa, the Ebola of the olive trees?
R. Probably the xylella came aboard coffee plants brought from America. It is a big problem for olive trees in Puglia, Italy. It has also reached Corsica, the Balearics to Alicante, Madrid … It is becoming an even bigger problem. This plague has more than 500 host plants and there are insects that spread the disease. Olive trees have a very high value, not only economic, but cultural, so it is very difficult to tear them away, people resist, which is very understandable from a human point of view, but favors the transmission of the disease. It is a direct consequence of global commerce. We have to monitor more at the borders, do more research, but the EU has left research on food security aside. We hope that in the next budget there will be money for agricultural and food studies.
P. What other pathogens are especially worrying?
My advice is: eat less animals and more plants. This would be healthy for the people, for the planet and for the 800 million people who go to bed hungry because they have nothing to eat
R. African swine fever He joined the EU in 2014 and is already in nine countries: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Belgium. The disease jumped 1,000 kilometers at a time, from the Baltic countries to Belgium, probably because someone threw a piece of contaminated food through the car window and then the wild boars became infected. It is a huge problem because the fever could reach the countries with the largest pig farms such as Spain, France, Germany, Holland …
P. Do politicians pay enough attention to scientific evidence?
R. In general, yes. In its 15 years of life, EFSA has published some 6,000 scientific opinions for the EU. Around 99.9% of all of them have been taken into account by European legislators and governments. In Europe, evidence-based policy is an important pillar, especially in food security. But there are reasons for concern, like vaccines. In France, 40% of the population thinks that vaccines have a toxic effect, it is a disaster. To think that scientific evidence is one more opinion is very dangerous. If we question the scientific method we go back to the Middle Ages.
P. What can be said to consumers about glyphosate?
R. You can tell them that if it is used well nobody has to fear. There was a discussion about whether it is carcinogenic or not. The UN agency IARC concluded that it was a carcinogen, a view contrary to that of EFSA. But all the regulatory agencies in the world concluded the same as EFSA. Even the UN special committee dealing with pesticide residues came to the same conclusion.
P. How can we be sure that glyphosate is used well?
R. At the European level, the active substance, glyphosate, is approved in this case. Then each country approves the final product, which can be glyphosate plus other compounds, stabilizers, for example. It is the member countries that have the responsibility to study these compounds, because they can be more dangerous than the active substance. Some of the effects described in the studies analyzed by IARC could be due to these other compounds, as we emphasize in our opinion. For example, taloamine, which can be more toxic than glyphosate. The countries have a great responsibility in this aspect. In France the sale of glyphosate to consumers in supermarkets, for example, will be prohibited. If you want it, you need a license.
P. Do you feel that the industry is pressuring EFSA?
R. Do not.
P. But the EFSA studies are financed by the industry
R. European law says that the organization that wants to approve a new product is responsible for making studies that allow experts to analyze their safety. The type of studies they have to do is also determined, they can not be the ones they want. At EFSA we sometimes make our own statistics using raw data from the industry. This is also done with cosmetics and drugs, it is not specific for food. It is the general system and I think it is very reliable.