The Risk of a Hazardous Future

Howard Minigh

Howard Minigh

Explaining the distinction between hazard and risk to the public is perhaps the biggest challenge the crop protection industry faces in 2016. It is true that crop protection products — like moving cars, hot coffee, or a table candle — can be a hazard. But like all hazards we encounter daily, the risks can be managed to a level that does not threaten the safety and health of humans or the environment.

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A basic principle of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. All chemicals — even water and oxygen — can be hazardous in excessive amounts. It is therefore important that exposure is managed to limit risk to an acceptable level and still reap the benefits.

Given that plants account for more than 80% of most human diets, the benefit of effective crop protection to help farmers grow a bountiful crop is clear. Furthermore, millions of farmers’ livelihoods rely on achieving a healthy crop. Without access to crop protection products, producing food becomes much harder. Of course we must manage the risk of using crop protection products, but to base regulations on hazard alone would be a risk to food security and a risk to farmer livelihoods.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluates substances for potential cancer hazards. Over the years IARC has found a potential hazard in hundreds of everyday items, including cell phones, pickled vegetables, yoga pants, and talcum powder — and in 2015, sausages, bacon, red meat, and a number of crop protection products were added to the list. Recognizing that the carcinogenic risk of eating red and processed meat is negligible, governments around the world reassured consumers and urged them to follow existing consumption guidelines for healthy eating. Yet some of the same governments have restricted the use of crop protection products based on IARC’s hazard assessment. As more crop protection products are up for review by IARC in 2016, we must work with regulators to ensure a risk-based logic is applied.

The discussion around endocrine-disrupting chemicals is another area where the industry must introduce logic and science into the debate. Of course people should not be exposed to substances that interact adversely with the human endocrine system, but hazard alone is not the appropriate measure. If we consider interaction with the endocrine system as the only criterion on which to define an endocrine disruptor, then acetaminophen (Tylenol), vitamin C, and wine would be endocrine disruptors. It is critical that we take into account the actual risk of a substance based on its potency, dose, and exposure.

The International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management says crop protection products must be regulated based on risk, not hazard, and CropLife International is striving to work with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other stakeholders to promote this approach. Nevertheless, there will be increasing pressure this year from activists calling on regulators to ban highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) simply on the basis of hazard.

The industry has responded. In 2015, CropLife International member companies made a voluntary commitment to manage potential risks posed by HHPs, and our ambition is for an industry-wide commitment to continue these efforts.

An increasingly popular myth propagated by special interest groups is that natural is inherently safer. This ignores factual evidence. For example, food-related illnesses are overwhelmingly due to food-borne pathogens such as E. coli that are often traced to organic fertilizer or to unsanitary food handling practices.

All farming approaches have the same responsibility to ensure prudent risk management of hazards — a responsibility the crop protection industry and national regulators take very seriously. But to restrict crop protection products based on their hazard alone would be a risk to global food security and farmer livelihoods.