The Risk-Monger

Imagine if European decision-makers had been put under pressure to regulate photovoltaics under what could be called the Solar Panel Directive.

  • A consultation process would establish committees tasked with drawing up restrictions on how the panels should or should not be constructed, installed and recycled. Panel producers would have to prove the materials in their products are safe or be blacklisted.
  • Beyond the requirements of REACH, the producers of all of the elements used in the panels, from the silicone to the cadmium or copper, would need to conduct a further barrage of tests to demonstrate that they were safe to humans, both in the workplace and, if there were accidental exposures, to the general public. There would be heated debate on the testing procedures and human health benchmarks.
  • Producers would also have to provide adequate evidence that the elements used in solar panels were safe for the environment, not just in the mining stage, but also throughout the supply chain manufacturing process (zero waste requirements) and recycling (cradle to cradle demands) with, of course, a post-use take-back demand placed on industry.
  • Under threat of the precautionary principle, if the products cannot be proven to be safe, they would be blacklisted under the emerging Solar Panel Directive’s complex formula of guidance documents.
  • The scientists on the advisory committees could not come from industry or have had their research funded by industry over the last 20 years, but anti-solar activists of any capacity from civil society would be encouraged to participate.
  • Since stakeholders were deadlocked, a moratorium was put in place restricting the use of nanotechnology in next generation solar panels. With the threat of a blacklist, all research in nano applications in photovoltaics ceased.
  • Within two years of the Solar Panel Directive being implemented, manufacturers would need to provide a total cradle-to-cradle lifecycle analysis to prove that the solar panels save more CO2 than is used to mine and refine the raw materials, manufacture the panels and dispose of them post-use. Only then would industry be given the right to bring the panels to market.
  • On the basis of the data industry provides, regulators would then decide, according to meteorological data, which European countries would be allowed to sell and use solar panels and which ones would be excluded for lack of sufficient sunlight or due to more sustainable energy alternatives, according to guidance documents drawn up by a multi-stakeholder working group.

Question: After years of highly critical debate and demands for data in face of restrictions, would the Solar Panel Directive increase trust in the solar industry or raise more doubts about the safety and right to market photovoltaics? Clearly, demands for data to prove that something is safe perversely undermine trust in an industry rather than build trust. The public perception of the safety and sustainability of solar panels would no longer exist. This is the Brussels precaution game and industry has been foolishly pulled into this trap again and again (from REACH to flame retardants to GMOs), most recently with the demands for data to keep certain pesticides on the market under the implementation of the Pesticides Directive (ironically dubbed the Directive on Sustainable Use of Pesticides).

The Risk-Monger has referred to this, rather offensively, as the “I don’t beat my wife” complex (based loosely on the complex question fallacy). If I am accused of such a terrible act, the more I try to deny it, the more guilty I look. Even if I provide evidence that I do not touch my wife, the stink of association remains and I certainly will not win any “husband of the year” award. The precautionary principle implies an accusation of guilt (and a threat of blacklist), demanding that the accused denies this guilt. Precaution is not designed to build trust but rather to reinforce its erosion. It is a “guilty until proven innocent” imposition on science (and by the way, don’t bother trying to prove you are innocent). The pesticides industry will be spending the coming years trying to resist having their products blacklisted – they will surely not win any “husband of the year” awards.

Under the EU Pesticides Directive presently coming into force, industry has had a demand for further data requirements (on top of the millions of pages of data they provide when they bring products onto the market) in order to prove that they are not doing something illegitimate. Millions of euros will be spent producing this data (there is a new cottage industry of small independent labs that will profit nicely from this dance) under the misguided assumption that trust will be enhanced once the regulatory game has been played out. Truth is that this data does not matter and trust will further diminish. It is part of the denial game that will only further erode the public perception of an industry that provides essential products to the agro-industry. If industry is lucky, their products will not be blacklisted, or not immediately, and they could get a few more years on the market. Hardly reassuring.

How does this clever game work? Regulators have been forced to demand data from industry because the public doesn’t trust that the products are safe. Industry provides data to show that their products are safe. But as safety is a normative concept, more data is demanded because not everyone feels that the conclusions are sufficient. More data is provided. In the end, given that the data is provided by industry, and we don’t trust industry research, the data is deemed illegitimate. The erosion of trust in industry is reinforced. As no industry-based researchers are allowed to advise the EU decision-makers (a very clever caveat established by civil society activists), there is an imbalance in available expertise and credible advice. When civil society produces their own research that calls into question the safety of industry products, everyone is outraged. Industry denies the validity of the civil society research under basic GLP guidelines. Regulators are forced to demand data from industry … and so the game continues.

Rather than to demonstrate the positive contributions of crop protection products, the agro-chemical producers have to deliver data that proves that their products do not cause cancers, kill bees, lead to endocrine disruption or affect wildlife (we could add any issue here, eg, monarch butterflies, just to waste industry’s time and money). And they provide this data. Meanwhile groups like Greenpeace and Pesticides Action Network run campaigns against pesticides with absolutely no credible data – the point is that, as accusers, they don’t need to provide data. So long as industry is guilty until proven innocent (what I have called the stench of precaution), the denial ball is in industry’s court and the charlatans are free to continue spreading doubt and mistrust until that industry is totally denormalised. The Risk-Monger is astonished that nobody in industry seems to have figured out that they will never win this game.

As my blogs tend to be too long, I will soon release another blog explaining the concept I call: normative reflux. Why we demand data, and further data, for things we generally don’t like or want (like chemicals or pesticides) but are quite happy with minimal data on things we like or want (like coffee, mobile phones, cars and, yes, solar panels). But not liking pesticides does not give regulators the right to be unprofessional.

The EU Pesticides Directive was an angry regulatory stunt imposed on industry by a group of activists in the Commission and the European Parliament who did not trust industry and were fully aware that any data produced would be meaningless. As a reminder, this decision process on the capability of the European Union to feed itself was pushed through without the apparent need to conduct an impact assessment. Recall how the rapporteur, the Green MEP, Hiltrud Breyer, publicly declared time and time again that she wanted all pesticides immediately banned via the precautionary principle. It is part of a long-term game of attrition to continue to discredit the chemical industry until the EU can move to declare itself pesticide-free (and dependent on the rest of the world to feed its citizens). I have yet to find a regulator in the European Commission who can competently defend the implementation of this miserable Directive (and as I have seen so often at conferences, EU officials simply shrug their shoulders and inform industry that they have to learn to live with the inconsistencies of the Directive as it stands).

So what can be done? In a previous blog, I advised the crop protection industry to concentrate on telling better stories rather than producing data that nobody really cares about. In other words, facts don’t matter and spending your time denying that you beat your wives only makes you look more guilty. But that does not remove the toxicity of the Pesticides Directive (pure poison to an industry that needs more trust rather than more suspicion). Maybe they should remove all plant protection products from the market until the EU revises this disaster of a Directive. That of course would be wholly irresponsible given the hundreds of millions of Europeans who depend on the crop protection industry’s capacity to ensure a safe, reliable food supply.

But then again, such drastic measures would be far less irresponsible than those activists who falsely accused an innocent person of “beating his wife” while being fully aware of the outrage such accusations would ensue.


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