Europe 'has failed to learn from environmental disasters'


John Vidal

Europe has failed to learn the lessons from many environmental and health disasters like Chernobyl, leaded petrol and DDT insecticides, and is now ignoring warnings about bee deaths, GM food and nanotechnology, according to an 800-page report by the European Environment Agency.

Thousands of lives could have been saved and extensive damage to ecosystems avoided if the "precautionary principle" had been applied on the basis of early warnings, say the authors of the 2013 Late Lessons from Early warnings report published on Wednesday.

They accuse industry of working to corrupt or undermine regulation by spinning and manipulating research and applying pressure on governments for financial benefit. "[It has] deliberately recruited reputable scientists, media experts and politicians to call on if their products were linked to possible hazards. Manufacturing doubt, disregarding scientific evidence of risks and claiming over-regulation appear to be a deliberate strategy for some industry groups and think tanks to undermine precautionary decision-making."

The peer-reviewed study, which is aimed to improve understanding of scientific information, looks at 18 areas including radiation from mobile phones, birth control pills in the aquatic environment, and invasive species. It found that governments often introduced laws much too late to prevent deaths and massive financial costs, but were highly likely to ignore scientific warnings and resist any regulation. The authors found more than 80 cases where no regulation was introduced when it later turned out that the risk from a technology or chemical was real, or still unproven.

Nuclear power

The study says the Fukushima disaster in 2011 may have released twice as much radiation as the Japanese government admitted. The emissions of radioactive caesium-137 from Fukushima are said to have started earlier than the authorities have claimed, to have lasted longer, and to have spread over a wider area of land than previously believed.

The authors say that it is far too early to make any responsible estimate of the potential health impact of the Fukushima disaster.

The report reopens the controversy between pro- and anti- nuclear power advocates about the health damage from in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. While the World Health Organisation has claimed that only 28 people died and there could be a possible 4,000 additional cancer deaths, the EU study states that the numbers of deaths could range from "at least 17,000 to 68,000 over 50 years".

In a sharp rebuke to pro-nuclear advocates who have argued that the accident produced very few extra cancers, it argues that it is wrong to focus solely on cancer as an outcome of Chernobyl. "Post-Chernobyl non-cancer impact may be very great, including immunological disorders, and cardiovascular disease - especially among the young," it says.

Reactor accidents are said to be by far the single largest risk now facing the nuclear industry. According to the study, the probability of a future major nuclear accident has increased 20-fold since Fukushima.

An urgent re-appraisal of the way that nuclear power stations are assessed for safety is long overdue, says the study. "Whatever one's view of the risks and benefits of nuclear energy, it is clear that the possibility of catastrophic accidents must be factored into the policy and regulatory decision-making process. Both the regulation of operating nuclear reactors and the design-base for any proposed reactor will need significant re-evaluation."

Genetically modified food and crops

The report also says that GM crops provide no direct benefit to consumers, are over-hyped, not necessarily safe and are largely unsuitable for the great majority of the world's farmers.

It argues that "top-down" GM companies cynically manipulate the international patent and subsidy systems to gain maximum returns. "Modifying genotypes and capturing them as [intellectual property] through plant variety protection and patents is a far easier means of capturing financial benefits than attempting to [innovate] with cover crops, rotation schedules and composting, farmer-initiated training and education and small scale marketing and credit programs," it says.

The study compares the potential of high-input GM farming with that of low-tech "agro-ecological" methods increasingly employed by small farmers in developing countries, and argues that the risks of GM are downplayed and its benefits overplayed.

"Evidence is accumulating of inflated benefit claims and of adverse effects. The benefits that may have been overstated are the reduction in pesticide use, the reduced use of more toxic pesticides, higher yields and farmer income. The safety of GM crops is presumed when there is a lack of evidence of harm, as if this were equivalent to evidence of lack of harm, when it clearly is not. Hence many of the safety conclusions … are assumption-based, rather than evidence-based, reasoning."

The study does not dismiss GM crops but says they have limited value as presently employed. Rather than being a widely used technolgy, GM is limited to very few countries and just 3% of the world's farmland, says the report. "Despite more than 30 years of research and development and nearly 20 years of commercialisation of GM crops, surprisingly only two traits have been significant in the marketplace - herbicide tolerance and insecticide production. And they are grown at scale only in a small number of countries. Industry-derived figures report a large number of global hectares under GM cultivation, but when examined … indicate an uneven global commitment to GM crops."