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How Syngenta won the war over weedkillers

More than two years after the European Food Safety Authority signaled concerns about a pesticide mad..

More than two years after the European Food Safety Authority signaled concerns about a pesticide made by Syngenta, the Swiss agrichemical giant has avoided an EU ban on the product after mounting a campaign to undermine the watchdogs findings.

Emails, letters and technical papers released by the European Commission in response to a POLITICO request show the Commission twice withdrew a proposal to remove Syngentas pesticide, called diquat, from the market after the company questioned the methodology behind EFSAs science.

The battle over diquat illustrates how Syngenta used its lobbying in Brussels to drive a wedge between the Commission and its own food safety agency. The companys questioning of EFSAs science has helped kick the prospect of a ban down the road.

Scientists and pesticide activists question why member countries and the Commission, by not banning diquat, have seemingly overridden the concerns of the EUs food safety regulator.

“Given that there are other alternatives to diquat … at least in my mind, I would not see any repercussions at least economically if you were to ban diquat” — Geoff Calvert, medical officer

The decision to keep diquat on the market has “no legitimacy,” said Hans Muilerman, chemicals officer for PAN Europe, an organization that seeks to expose the influence of the chemical industry. Had the Commission looked specifically at the hazardous components of diquat, he added, it would have found that “reapproval is not possible.”

Syngenta insists it was simply doing its job by pointing out what it saw as a weakness in EFSAs case. Lobbying on behalf of company products “is a normal part of any functioning political system,” said Anna Bakola, a spokesperson for Syngenta in Brussels. “The Commission has not taken diquat to vote whilst the technical discussions were ongoing and there was uncertainty in the robustness of the evaluation by EFSA,” she added.

Although diquats license ran out in 2012, it has been extended in the EU on a temporary basis since then, in what Bakola describes as a “routine” process for such products.

Syngentas campaign to keep diquat on the EU market took place largely out of public view, while a high-profile political battle raged in the last couple of years across Europe over glyphosate, the active ingredient in a ubiquitous weedkiller made by U.S. company Monsanto.

In that case, EFSA deemed glyphosate to be safe. It was exposure to diquat that it concluded was a worry. But that dossier didnt get much public scrutiny. Eighteen months after the Commission standing committee was first supposed to decide on diquats fate, no vote has taken place and the pesticide is still on the market.

Its not the first time that Syngenta has ended up on top in an EU policy debate. In 2013, when the Commission banned neonicotinoid pesticides suspected of harming bees, the company — together with two other pesticide manufacturers — drew up a highly effective plan to keep the products on the market by exploiting emergency authorizations.

A quiet offensive

Syngentas problem emerged suddenly in late 2015, when Parma-based EFSA published a scientific opinion outlining its concerns about the use of diquat, a widely used pesticide product that is sprayed on crops like potatoes, oil seed rape and sunflowers. The product earns tens of millions of euros every year for the Basel-based conglomerate.

The EFSA assessment, finalized in November 2015, concluded that exposure levels of diquat to agricultural workers were “a critical area of concern” and noted that the substance could potentially disrupt human hormonal systems and disturb the reproductive cycle of wild birds and mammals.

As part of its review of diquat, EFSA deduced that exposure to the product for workers exceeded acceptable levels by several thousand percent in certain cases.

Using a British approach to measuring the AOEL, or “acceptable operator exposure levels,” EFSA found that using five liters of diquat per hectare of farmland would exceed acceptable exposure levels by up to 350 percent should people nearby be unprotected.

Another test conducted using a German approach for measuring exposure showed the AOEL to be exceeded by up to 483 percent for residents. Another exposure scenario using tractor-mounted equipment under the British model for workers wearing protective gear showed the AOEL was exceeded by 4,150 percent.

The use of diquat has long been a controversial subject for scientists | Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images

The use of diquat by farmers has been at the center of a years-long dispute among scientists. In 2016, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a federal agency in the U.S., performed studies on the human impact of diquat and discovered five deaths and thousands of diquat-related illnesses in the U.S., where the substance has nonetheless been authorized.

The previous year, a team of toxicology experts from Newcastle University in the U.K. also found in an in vitro study that diquats potential to cause Parkinsons disease was higher than that of paraquat, a chemical already banned in the EU.

“I think definitely there could be a tougher approach in the EU. You guys have already banned paraquat and I dont think there have been any severe repercussions on your agricultural industry as a result of banning paraquat,” said Geoff Calvert, a medical officer and senior author of the scientific study on diquat carried out by NIOSH. “Given that there are other alternatives to diquat … at least in my mind, I would not see any repercussions at least economically if you were to ban diquat.”

Calvert noted, however, that four of the deaths he found were due to deliberate ingestion of the product. One of the chief reasons why paraquat was banned in the EU, and other countries such as South Korea, was its links to suicides and what critics say are difficulties in handling the substance safely due to its harm to lungs. Syngenta said the fifth death was likely due to a miscarriage. It disputed the link between the miscarriage and diquat.

Swiss fightback

In Brussels, health officials in the European Commission were alerted about the 2015 EFSA findings and set about drafting a bill to take diquat off the market. EU health ministries and Syngenta were then informed that a vote on the withdrawal would take place at the October 2016 meeting of the Commissions Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed, emails between Syngenta and the Commission show.

In response, Syngenta appealed directly to the Commission and worked the grassroots. It contacted farming organizations in Ireland, Germany, the U.K. and Brussels to coordinate a region-wide “growers campaign” and put pressure on Brussels to relicense diquat for use in the EU, documents show. Lobbying material produced by Syngenta also says that 50 percent of growers in the EU would revert to “mechanical alternatives that are costly, very labor intensive, use more fuel and are not reliable on their own” should diquat be banned.

EFSA found that using five liters of diquat per hectare of farmland would exceed acceptable exposure levels by up to 350 percent should people nearby be unprotected | Remdo De Waal/AFP via Getty Images

The company was also forthright in its attacks on EFSAs work.

Syngenta wrote to Bernhard Url, executive director of EFSA, on December 12, 2016 to complain that his agency had not done its job properly. The company argued that EFSA used overly conservative parameters when working out human exposure to diquat. For example, Syngenta said EFSA had not included important data, specifically in the German model, on diquats apparently limited ability to produce vapor, drift across fields and be inhaled.

“Our main concern … is that EFSA did not provide complete calculations using the German model, and still has not, despite having all the necessary input parameters, included measured values of diquat with the original dossier,” two senior company officials, whose names have been redacted by the Commission, wrote to Url.

The letter also claimed that Syngenta had uncovered evidence that diquat had been treated unfairly by EFSA compared to “other equivalent substances.” As a result of risk managers in EFSA missing “critical information” when reaching their decision, Syngenta told Url that it would “follow up directly with the Commission on this matter.”

Email correspondence between Syngenta and Commission officials shows that the Basel-based company was first informed on May 3, 2016 that a vote would go ahead to remove its product from the market in October.

It was a sign that its arguments were failing to gain traction. Just two months before, Syngenta had filed comments to the Commission in which it argued that EFSAs conclusion on diquat was “unnecessarily precautionary.” Should the risk assessment be revised and mitigation measures implemented by workers, “acceptable levels of exposure can still be demonstrated,” the company argued.

After all of its back and forth, Syngentas push to get EFSA to revisit its findings appears to have yielded results.

Its efforts, however, had hit a brick wall.

On September 6, Syngenta was again informed that “all procedures are ongoing to include the withdrawal of approval of diquat in the October meeting.”

After no vote took place in October, the Commission told Syngenta in a meeting held on October 27 that the vote would happen in December, emails between the Commission and Syngenta show. That vote never took place.

Brussels retreats

Asked why Brussels has stepped back from holding a vote on removing diquat from the market, a Commission spokesperson said Syngentas criticisms about EFSAs process had influenced officials in charge of the dossier.

“The Commission decided not to proceed with a vote, as initially foreseen, in order to first await the outcome of the technical discussion between Syngenta and EFSA, as the comments made by Syngenta pointed to the fact that EFSAs conclusions might need to be revisited and thus merited a thorough analysis by EFSA,” the spokesperson said.

The Commission also said that EFSA had expressed a need to reassess how it looked at worker exposure, as Syngenta argued. “It is important that EFSAs conclusions are technically and scientifically correct before the Commission takes a final decision,” the spokesperson said, adding that a vote on the matter would take place “in the coming months” and definitely before the current expiry date for the product on June 30, 2018.

The European Commission earlier this month gave EFSA a mandate to reassess non-dietary exposure of diquat | Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

Over half a year later in July 2017, the agrichemical giant again lobbied the Commission to tell EFSA to do more research on diquat. In an email, Syngenta requested the Commission provide a mandate to the watchdog “to enable a complete assessment” of diquat “based on a correct calculation.”

After all of its back and forth, Syngentas push to get EFSA to revisit its findings appears to have yielded results. In October 2017, José Tarazona, EFSAs pesticide unit chief, told the company in a letter that the Commission “might consider the need to reassess the non-dietary exposure to diquat” as certain detailed calculations were not part of the agencys original assessment of the product.

Whats more, a December 1, 2017 email from Syngenta to EU diplomats following the file states the companys confidence that the Commission would be “open to consider extending the expiry date [for diquat] again beyond June 2018.”

The Commission earlier this month gave EFSA a mandate to reassess non-dietary exposure of diquat, a Commission spokesperson said.

Nevertheless, EFSA told POLITICO that it stood by its assessment of diquat and accused Syngenta of trying to undermine its credibility.

“EFSAs assessment is finalized. In other words its conclusions are technically and scientifically correct,” an EFSA spokesperson said. “EFSA often receives criticism about its work on regulated products. This is aimed at discrediting the solidity of our scientific approach when our assessments do not meet the expectations of interested parties.”

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Burkina Faso: Growing Violence Threatens Health Care

Away from the worlds attention, Burkina Faso has been slipping into violence. In less than a year, t..

Away from the worlds attention, Burkina Faso has been slipping into violence. In less than a year, the number of displaced has increased fivefold, from 50,000 last December, to 270,000 in August. As ever, the most vulnerable suffer most: the very young, and the very old.

When Alidou Sawadogos elderly mother fell ill, he faced a long and dangerous journey to get treatment for her.

“When she collapsed, a friend called me,” he explains. “By the time I arrived she was already unconscious. I decided to take her to the health center and luckily someone who had a motorcycle helped me. Because of the violence many people who are sick wait at home and die. Everyone is afraid of taking the road to the health center in Barsalogho.”

Across Burkina Faso, the rising insecurity has forced over a hundred health centers to close, or to limit their work. Half a million people now have little or no access to health care. Dedicated health workers, among them Dr Bertrand Dibli in Barsalogho, are struggling to meet the needs, and to stay safe themselves.

“This is one of the few health centers that isnt closed,” he says. “We dont have enough equipment. And the insecurity has caused huge anxiety among health workers. Even coming here to Barsalogho is a huge challenge because the route is so dangerous.”

The ICRC has been working to support Burkina Fasos health professionals, with medical kits, and vaccination campaigns. During his visit to the country, ICRC President Peter Maurer expressed his concern at the multiple challenges facing Burkina Fasos people.

“We are very concerned,” he said. “Very worried about the upsurge in violence, its a vicious circle that is trapping the civilian population between armed groups.”

“We also see,” Mr Maurer added, “that it is not only the violence that is affecting the country, it is also under development, and climate change. Together with the violence that is obstructing the health services, its an accumulation of factors.”

And so the ICRC – jointly with the Burkinabé Red Cross – is also delivering food to the displaced, and helping to improve access to water supplies. All of this, says nurse Jeanette Kientega, is desperately needed by a population uprooted by conflict, and denied access to basic health care.

“By the time they are able to get here, it is often too late” she says. “Sometimes we can help, but if they have already been ill a long time, it is difficult. We try to do what we can.” (more…)

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World Bank and WHO Statement on Partnership & Deployment of Financing to WHO for Ebola Response in DRC

WASHINGTON, August 23, 2019—The World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), along with the G..

WASHINGTON, August 23, 2019—The World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), along with the Government and other key partners, are working in close partnership on the Ebola Crisis Response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Central to this partnership is the assessment of the financing needs, and deployment of resources, with the goal to put an end to the current deadly outbreak.

The World Bank is today announcing that US$50 million in funding is to be released to WHO for its lifesaving operational work on the frontlines of the outbreak. The WHO is announcing that this US$50 million in funds will close the financing gap for its emergency health response in DRC through to the end of September 2019, and is calling on other partners to mirror this generous support in order to fund the response through to December.

The funding comprises US$30 million from the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEF) and US$20 million from the World Bank. The US$50 million in grant funding is part of the larger financial package of approximately US$300 million that the World Bank announced last month to support the fourth Strategic Response Plan for the DRC Ebola outbreak.

“WHO is very grateful for the World Banks support, which fills a critical gap in our immediate needs for Ebola response efforts in DRC, and will enable the heroic workers on the frontlines of this fight to continue their lifesaving work,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization. “We keenly await further funding from other partners to sustain the response through to the end of the year.”

The DRC government, working in collaboration with the World Bank, WHO, and other key partners, has finalized the Fourth Strategic Response Plan (SRP4), which outlines the total resources needed for the DRC Ebola Crisis Response from July to December 2019. The financing announced today is part of the World Banks previously announced financial package of up to US$300 million and covers over half of SRP4s needs, with the remainder requiring additional funding from other donors and partners.

“The World Bank is working closely with WHO, the Government of DRC, and all partners to do everything we can to put an end to the latest Ebola outbreak,” said Annette Dixon, Vice President, Human Development at the World Bank. “The partnership between our organizations and the Government is critical for responding to the emergency as well as rebuilding systems for delivery of basic services and to restoring the trust of communities.”

The Government of DRC requested US$30 million from the PEF Cash Window to be paid directly to WHO. The PEF Steering Body approved the request bringing the PEFs total contribution to fighting Ebola in DRC to US$61.4 million. The PEF is a financing mechanism housed at the World Bank; its Steering Body is co-chaired by the World Bank and WHO, and comprises donor country members from Japan, Germany and Australia. The quick and flexible financing it provides saves lives, by enabling governments and international responders to concentrate on fighting Ebola—not fundraising.

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Borno State launches first Malaria Operational Plan, reawakens fight against malaria

Maiduguri, 13 August 2019 – Following recommendations from malaria interventions in Borno State Nige..

Maiduguri, 13 August 2019 – Following recommendations from malaria interventions in Borno State Nigeria, the Malaria Annual Operational Plan (MAOP) was developed and launched on 08 August 2019 with technical support from the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners. Aligned to the National Malaria Strategic Plan (2014 -2020), MAOP was developed through a broad-based stakeholders workshop involving malaria stakeholders, reviewed on different thematic areas and endorsed by the Commissioner for Health and Permanent Secretary, Borno State Ministry of Health.

Speaking during the launch, the Borno state Malaria Programme Manager, Mr Mala Waziri described the MAOP as the first to be endorsed and disseminated in Borno State. “WHO has made us proud by supporting the first ever Malaria Operational Plan right from development, review, printing to dissemination.”

Dr Ibrahim Kida, the Ministerial Secretary Borno State Ministry of Health and Incident Manager of the state, described the launch as “an historic event as stakeholders across the health sector made commitments to use the document as an implementation guide for all malaria programs”. The plan was also described as an advocacy tool for planning domestic funds mobilization.

The MAOP has seven objectives among which are: provide at least 50% of targeted population with appropriate preventive measures by 2020; ensure that all persons with suspected malaria who seek care are tested with Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) or microscopy by 2020 and all persons with confirmed malaria seen in private or public health facilities receive prompt treatment with an effective anti-malarial drug by 2020.

The MAOP will further ensure that at least 50% of the population practice appropriate malaria prevention and management by 2020, ensuring timely availability of appropriate anti-malarial medicines and commodities required for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of malaria in Borno State by 2020.

In addition, it seeks to ensure that all health facilities report on key malaria indicators routinely by 2020 and finally strengthen governance and coordination of all stakeholders for effective program implementation towards an A rating by 2020 on a standardized scorecard. These strategic objectives have specific targets and the MAOP takes into account the humanitarian response.

“Malaria remains a leading cause of poor health in Nigeria. According to the 2018 WHO Malaria Report, 53million cases are recorded annually in Nigeria, roughly 1 in 4 persons is infected with malaria contributing 25% of the global burden,” says Dr Nglass Ini Abasi, WHO Malaria Consultant for the North East.

“Furthermore, 81,640 deaths are recorded annually (9 deaths every hour), which accounts for 19% of global malaria deaths (1 in 5 global malaria deaths) and 45% malaria deaths in West Africa. The Nigeria Malaria Strategic Plan (NMSP) 2014-2020 has a goal to reduce malaria burden to pre-elimination levels and bring malaria-related mortality to zero and WHO is working assiduously with Government to ensure the burden is reduced accordingly.”

Results from WHO’s Early Warning, Alert and Response System (EWARS) week 30 report from 223 sites, (including 32 IDP camps) show that malaria was the leading cause of morbidity and mortality accounting for 35% of cases and 46% of reported deaths. In addition, results from the Nigeria Humanitarian Response Strategy (NHRS 2019-2021) indicate 7.1million people are in dire need of healthcare and 6.2million are targeted for immediate attention.

Despite recent improvements, insecurity remains a challenge limiting access to the functional health facilities. Easily preventable and treatable diseases such as malaria, acute respiratory infection and diarrheal diseases account for the greatest proportion of morbidity and mortality among the vulnerable population. Furthermore, Malaria is endemic in North East Nigeria and the transmission is perennial with a marked seasonal peak from July to November every year. (more…)

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