Monday, January 20, 2014

A farcical approach to food safety

Cupid, the god of erotic love, inspired several frescoes adorning the ducal palace in Parma, Italy.

I'm not sure whether the European Food Safety Authority, the building's current occupant, has set out to harness Cupid's energy. Yet it has become synonymous with murky liaisons between scientists and big business.

This year EFSA could take steps to improve the situation. It is scheduled to review a 2011 policy paper on its "independence".

If the authority wants to engage in something other than a whitewash, then the first thing it should do is to acknowledge that the existing policy is farcical.

The signature at the end of the document is sufficient to strip it of any credibility. It bears the name of Diána Bánáti, who resigned from the authority in 2012 after other European Union bodies started raising questions about her activities. She was serving both as chairwoman of EFSA's management board and as a director of the International Life Sciences Institute, a lobbying group for the food industry.


Taking such a relaxed attitude to conflict of interest issues, the paper reads as if it was written during a siesta. It says that "interests are a natural and inevitable consequence of attaining scientific recognition at international level in a given field".

This indicates that EFSA thinks it is generally acceptable for scientists to work simultaneously for the private sector and for public agencies.

Having examined EFSA's activities carefully over the past few years, I'm worried that its staff spend too much time in a majestic palace to understand how things work in the real world. Or maybe they do understand but refuse to recognise the nature of the problem, lest they upset their corporate chums.

I've seen quite a few letters that the authority receives from agri-food giants. These show that major corporations will try to exert pressure on regulators when they encounter any difficulties. In March 2011, for example, Syngenta complained about the length of time that EFSA was taking to complete "risk assessments" of genetically-modified maize. Such delays, the Swiss firm warned, "may have a serious impact" on the international food trade.

It shouldn't really be necessary to spell out what is going on here. The reason why corporations want to get their products on the market swiftly is that all they care about is increasing their profits.

Scientists, however, are supposed to be motivated by loftier concerns such as the pursuit of knowledge and truth. It follows that science can only be truly independent if it is not reliant on big business for funding.


Syngenta's links with EFSA have proven controversial. In 2008, the firm hired Suzy Renckens to work for it on biotechnology regulation; she had previously coordinated EFSA's panel for genetically modified foods.

A row during 2013 suggested that the relationship might have soured since that revolving door case. Syngenta threatened to sue the agency after taking umbrage at a press statement about the effects of certain pesticides on bees.

Despite that squabble, EFSA continues to be highly accommodating to Syngenta.

I was disturbed recently to come across a dossier which raises concerns about how chemicals get rubber-stamped on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 2012, EFSA issued a report on sedaxane, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta for use on cereals. Later that year, the European Commission (in theory, a separate institution to EFSA) noticed that sedaxane had been categorised as "likely to be carcinogenic to humans" in the US. As EFSA hadn't recommended that the product be classified as a carcinogen, the Commission asked the authority to "update its conclusions".

EFSA's revised report was published in January last year. It reached exactly the same findings as the earlier one. While it expressed some concern about the long-term effects of the product on birds and mammals who feed on grain and seeds, it didn't explicitly state that it could cause cancer to humans.

These reports were based on studies supplied to EFSA and to the French government. Guess who supplied those studies: Syngenta, the very company that has a vested interest in selling sedaxane, irrespective of what damage it may do to health or the environment.

Low standards

For a short while, I thought this might be a rare instance of America taking a more robust stance on food safety than Europe. Then I learned that the US had granted federal clearance to sedaxane in 2012.

Along with many other campaigners, I have become quite obsessed with the efforts to clinch a trade and investment pact between the EU and the US. One of the major objectives of the corporations that have shaped the agenda for the trade talks is to achieve "regulatory convergence": a fancy term for removing any differences between the EU and the US. Their chief target is the EU's "precautionary principle", which allows it to place restrictions on substances if there are sound reasons to believe they are dangerous.

The sedaxane saga illustrates that the standards applying on both sides of the Atlantic are already too low. Any attempt to lower them further must, therefore, be resisted.

•First published by EUobserver, 20 January 2014.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The immense cruelty of Ariel Sharon

If it wasn't for a brief encounter with Ariel Sharon, I may never have become a Palestine solidarity activist.

It was towards the end of 2001. I was among a number of reporters accompanying a European Union "peace mission" to the Middle East. On a Sunday afternoon, we waited for Sharon, then Israel's prime minister, to give a press conference in Jerusalem's King David Hotel.

When Sharon eventually appeared, I was struck by how venomous he was. My memory has -- naturally enough -- faded a little in the interim. But I'm fairly sure that there was a smirk on his face as he spoke of how Palestinians sometimes blew themselves up.

The gist of his lengthy monologue was that all resistance to the Israeli occupation amounted to "terrorism." He seemed to be rejoicing in Palestinian suffering.


At the time, I wasn't properly informed about how the West mollycoddled Israel. In my naivety, I was impressed that EU leaders did not appear intimidated by Sharon.

There was some tension between Israel and Belgium, which held the Union's rotating presidency. Sharon was being sued in Brussels for his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre that took place in Lebanon in 1982 (when he was Israel's defense minister).

Quizzed by Israeli journalists, Belgium's then prime minister Guy Verhofstadt insisted that his country was a democracy, where the justice system was free from political interference. The following day -- during a turbulent flight on the Belgian government jet -- Verhofstadt briefed us about how Sharon had called him to a meeting that Sunday evening. To break the ice, Verhofstadt had joked with Sharon about how prison conditions in Belgium were improving.

It was only later that I realized that Verhofstadt was a really a pushover. Although a public prosecutor had accepted that the case against Sharon could go ahead, Verhofstadt's government intervened in 2003 to scuttle the proceedings.

The "universal jurisdiction" law under which the case was taken was watered down at Israel's behest. So much for Belgian "democracy."


Of course, I can't claim to understand how Sharon's mind worked from having once been in the same room as him. But I have studied his record in reasonable depth more recently. And I feel that I have learned enough to know that the articles now proliferating in the media about Sharon coveting peace are a travesty.

In a blog post for The Jerusalem Post, Eric Yoffie argued that Sharon was "the ultimate realist" as prime minister. "In order to assure Israel’s future as a Jewish state, he dismantled Jewish settlements and ended the occupation of 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip," Yoffie added.

Only the first part of that sentence reflects the truth. Sharon did indeed strive to preserve Israel as a state where Jews have more rights than everyone else living there; the correct term for that system is "apartheid."

Yet withdrawing Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005 was not tantamount to ending the occupation there. Israel still controls Gaza's air and sea borders. The "disengagement" paved the way for a siege and attacks on Gaza that have been enthusiastically supported by Sharon's protégés such as Tzipi Livni.

Similar lies are being repeated elsewhere. Associated Press has reported that Sharon "directed a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, ending 38 years of military control of the territory."

In The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland writes that Sharon was "acknowledging the truth that lay buried beneath the soil" through his "intriguing habit" of referring to places in present-day Israel with their original Arab names. According to Freedland, Sharon's "final mission" could have been to close the wounds left by the Nakba, the forced displacement of Palestinians ahead of Israel's foundation in 1948.


Speculating about what Sharon might have done had a stroke not ended his political career in 2006 is, in my view, pointless. And besides, nobody has yet produced credible evidence that he was on the cusp of delivering justice to the Palestinians.

What can be said with certainty is that he displayed immense cruelty both as a soldier and as a politician.

For a guide to just how cruel he was, I'd recommend Baruch Kimmerling's book Politicide. It recalls that when Sharon was a military general, he launched a brutal operation in Gaza in August 1970. Thousands of homes were demolished and swathes of citrus groves were destroyed; orders were given to kill -- without trial -- any Palestinian suspected of involvement in resistance.

Sharon's penchant for war crimes continued during his stint as prime minister. Operation Defensive Shield involved the destruction of schools, universities, clinics, mosques and churches in the occupied West Bank during 2002. An estimated 4,000 people were left homeless because of the sustained shelling of Jenin refugee camp.

Sharon kept on exulting in the loss of life. Eight Palestinian children and nine other adults were killed in a bomb attack on the leading Hamas member Salah Shehadeh in 2002. Sharon praised the operation as "one of our greatest successes."

To those who still think that Sharon really was readying himself for a historic compromise, I say two words: "the wall." It was he who approved the construction of that monstrosity which was explicitly designed to strengthen Israel's grip on the West Bank.

I don't believe in taking pleasure from anyone's pain or ill-health, even when the person in question is a mass-murder like Ariel Sharon. So I have no plans to celebrate his death, whenever it comes. Like many others, I'll be too busy working to destroy the wretched system of apartheid that he helped to build.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 9 January 2014.