Global growth in the use of pesticides, coupled with heightened concentrations of pesticides in foodstuffs and the environment, has fuelled widespread concern. Vague fears of illness and unpredictable environmental impacts combine with a sense of powerlessness in the face of unfavourable developments that appear to be permitted or even directed by anonymous institutions. This in turn results in mounting distrust in public agencies and state authorities in particular.
But the fact is that citizens in the European Union face fewer risks today. Indeed, according to most scientific studies, they live more securely than any previous generation. But this does little to assuage the growing skepticism. This is particularly evident in individuals’ perceptions of the risks associated with foodstuffs, food production, and the use of pesticides.
Different perspectives on an urgent issue
Organized jointly by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) and the consortium Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA), a workshop was held in December 2017, bringing together scientists, social and risk researchers, and representatives from the European Food Safety Authority and other regulatory bodies. The experts shared their research findings and presented their different approaches and conclusions using the example of risk perceptions relating to the use of pesticides.
The standard to which the EU aspires is outlined clearly in the relevant regulation from 2009, which requires that “... substances or products produced or placed on the market do not have any harmful effect on human or animal health or any unacceptable effects on the environment.” EU experts attending the workshop explained the lengthy approval process that products undergo in Europe under these widely reviewed regulations. They pointed out that violations of these regulations have only been identified in a few instances.
Trust is the basis of all communication – and risk communication in particular
There is a general perception, however, that these regulations are not complied with – perhaps because they offer a promise that cannot in fact be redeemed. Zero risk, however, is an unattainable goal, as Ortwin Renn, scientific director at the IASS, emphasized.
The social researchers explained that people’s perceptions of risk have little to do with the actual risk levels. Rather, perceptions are based on which information and sources of information people are willing to trust – and citizens place little trust in public agencies in this matter. As a consequence, a pervasive sense of uncertainty permeates public opinion.
The workshop’s participants were able to agree on two main conclusions:
- Communication can only succeed if the source of information is trusted.
- It is not possible to avoid risks entirely; successful risk assessment entails the careful weighing of risks and benefits.
Accordingly, the public can only regain its confidence in the work of state institutions and in the findings of scientific research – even in the controversial and complex field of pesticide use – if communication is open, transparent, and offers a range of perspectives on the associated risks and their assessment.