University of Amsterdam: With these reforms the EU could rebuild public support

Through its Green Deal the EU seeks a transition towards sustainable agriculture. This includes measures to reduce the risk and use of pesticides by 50% by 2030. Public support for these measures is crucial, but has been damaged in the last decade. In a unique experiment in six European countries, researchers tested how decision-making procedures could be reformed to rebuild public support. The authors identify three promising reforms: post-authorisation monitoring and review, inclusion of all relevant scientific studies in risk assessments, and considering the effects on small and organic farmers.

When in 2017 the EU reauthorized the highly contested and world’s most widely used herbicide Glyphosate, the active substance in Bayer/Monsanto’s Roundup, public trust was damaged. Citizens doubted the ability of the European regulatory framework to protect public health and environment when allowing a pesticide classified as a ‘probable human carcinogen’ back on the market. In response the EU has implemented some reforms and others are under discussion, but little is known about the public support for these reforms.

The case of glyphosate has become very timely because the authorisation expires in 2022. Researchers from the Amsterdam Centre for European Studies (ACES) used this very controversial case to test which reforms would be needed to regain trust from EU citizens and public support for EU pesticides regulation. ‘Not with the intention to help the EU to reauthorize glyphosate; my expectation is this will not happen in any case’, states one of the authors, Political Scientist Jonathan Zeitlin of the University of Amsterdam, ‘but because people feel very strongly about this controversial case. This helps us to understand how we can increase public support, also for future controversial EU measures like those which form part of the Green Deal.’

A survey experiment in 6 European countries
Before launching the survey, the authors identified the main challenges of European pesticides regulation and reforms proposed by EU institutions, civil society organizations, academic commentators, and other stakeholders. They grouped these challenges and reform proposals under four dimensions: 1) the organization of the decision-making process; 2) the factors considered when authorizing pesticides; 3) sources of evidence; and 4) post-market monitoring and review of authorized pesticides.

The authors then conducted a pair of linked online survey experiments in June 2020 among a representative sample of 9022 respondents in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden. In the first experiment respondents were asked to rank and rate randomly assigned policy packages covering the four dimensions. The second experiment examined public acceptance of individual pesticide authorization decisions that might be taken under a reformed procedure, using glyphosate as an example.

What reforms are needed to increase public support?
The study finds that citizens have strong views about the reforms decision-making procedures should adopt to improve EU pesticides regulation:

Public support for a proposed reform package increases by 22.1% when systematic post-authorization monitoring and review is introduced, with the possibility of removing the pesticide from the market in the case of unexpected negative effects.
Public support increases by more than 15 % when all relevant scientific studies or studies conducted only by an independent public body are included in authorization decisions. This clearly reflects widespread public distrust when manufacturers’ predominant influence the sources of evidence.
Public support increases by 7.7% when effects on small and organic farmers are considered in pesticides authorization decisions.
By contrast, the respondents were less concerned about the level at which pesticides authorization take place. Support is strongest for taking authorization decisions at a combination of EU and national levels. ‘At least in this policy field, EU citizens appear to care more about how decisions are taken than about where’, states Zeitlin.
Combining all these reforms attracted a broad support of 72.3 percent. ‘Our second experiment shows that If the EU adopted these proposed regulatory governance reforms, citizens would be more prepared to accept pesticide authorization decisions even when they run counter to their substantive preferences’, explains Zeitlin.

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