People & Perspective

Merchants of Doubt

A group of people holding signs that say no covid vaccine.

In March 1996, a British fact-finding commission reporting to the House of Commons concluded that striking brain diseases observed in young people were probably due to the consumption of meat from BSE-infected cattle. Panic broke out in Europe: meat consumption collapsed, European meat became unsaleable, hundreds of thousands of cattle had to be slaughtered and the meat destroyed, and import bans were hastily imposed on British beef.

The public as well as politicians reacted with shock and realized: there was no system and no uniform set of rules in the EU to assess and monitor the safety of food. The BSE crisis demonstrated the inadequacy of this policy and made it very clear that food safety needs rules and that these rules must be strictly science-based, i.e. free from attempts by lobby groups to manipulate and influence food safety.

Therefore, Parliament, Commission and national governments created a coherent system of risk assessment and risk management based on verifiable scientific criteria. At the European level, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was created (whose work is independently reviewed and evaluated every six years), and at the national level, authorities such as the French Food Safety Authority (AFSSA), the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) or, in Germany, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).

Since then, strict criteria have been introduced for the assessment of food, whether it is meat, novel food, food from genetically modified crops or pesticide residues.

A man with glasses and a beard smiles into the camera.
“The system of scientific assessment has proven its worth”
Matthias Berninger

The system has proven its worth: The last case of a person infected with BSE occurred in the EU in 2016, and apart from the EHEC outbreak in 2011, which resulted in 4,000 illnesses and 53 deaths but was resolved and stopped fairly quickly, there have been no major food scandals.

The decisions taken on the basis of the scientific assessments have not always pleased everyone. Indeed, some, e.g. on neonicotinoids, have been criticized by industry and Bayer has appealed the subsequent ban imposed by the Commission. However, neither Bayer nor industry has challenged the system of scientific assessment.

Unfortunately, it's a different story on the part of environmental NGOs fighting against genetic engineering, pesticides and all sorts of food additives. In the case of the neonicotinoid ban, for example, they praised the authorities for their "courageous decision," but in the debate about the current application to extend the approval of glyphosate, the same authorities are suddenly being portrayed as industry-dependent, infiltrated or even corrupt, in any case as subservient to industry and irresponsible toward the public. The assessment process is "controlled by industry," states BUND, the German Friends of the Earth branch, adding the approval authorities lack "any critical distance to the industry" and the approval procedure must be "radically reformed".


Striking parallels

Parallels to the opponents of the Corona measures and the vaccination campaign, who also accuse the authorities of being too close to industry and lacking critical distance, are striking.

Here, as there, „experts" are brought forward who represent positions that are not shared by the overwhelming majority of science - experts who are mostly known for their closeness to organizations that reject vaccinations, genetic engineering or pesticides.

In the case of glyphosate, the outsider opinions are contrasted by the votes of regulators from Australia, Brazil, Germany, the EU, Japan, Canada, Korea, New Zealand, the U.S. and the FAO/WHO. In addition, there are more than 800 safety studies, including the Agricultural Health Study (AHS) from the USA. For 25 years, this study has continuously examined around 50,000 users of crop protection products, including 45,000 who regularly apply glyphosate. In all those years, no association between proper use of glyphosate-based herbicides and cancer has been found.

Most recently, in June 2021, four sister organizations of German BfR, the competent authorities from France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Hungary commissioned by the EU Commission to conduct a glyphosate evaluation, also concluded that glyphosate is not carcinogenic and does not pose a risk to consumers.

Against this background, sowing doubt with experts close to specific industries and lobby groups is consistent with the strategy of organized science denial described by U.S. historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in 2010. In their book “Merchants of Doubt”, Oreskes and Conway describe in detail how interest groups are trying to influence public opinion and legislators in their favor by disputing the scientific consensus on environmental or health science issues. The strategy of these pressure groups is the blueprint of organizations trying to distort the glyphosate debate: omitting facts, denying a scientific consensus, undermining trust in authorities and scientific institutions. Added to this are tactics such as the involvement of pseudo-experts, cherry-picking of studies and spread of conspiracy myths - but above all the stoking of fears of damage to health.


A policy operating on the basis of emotions 

This strategy also takes advantage of the fact that many media have difficulties distinguishing real science from disinformation and distorted narratives because they strive for balanced reporting, often falling for false balance by giving too much space to minority or outsider positions.

In the recent pandemic, we are witnessing the dangers of these tactics: already, parts of the population have developed great reservations towards vaccination, wearing masks, and other measures.

Of course, it is legitimate to criticize political decisions that are based on scientific assessment. But it is very dangerous to undermine the scientific assessment process itself and to defame the authorities responsible for health and safety issues. The end result will be a policy operating on the basis of emotions – throwing our society back into the same situation we were when the BSE crisis struck: haphazard, helpless and unprepared.

Portrait of Matthias Berninger in Leverkusen.
Matthias Berninger
Global Head of Public Affairs & Sustainability at Bayer
6 min read