'Opening address: Climate Change and its Health Impacts on Food/Water Safety and Nutrition', EFSA, FAO, WHO joint seminar, Rome

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Speaking Notes

Dear Chairman, Representatives of the Italian Ministries of Labour, Health and Social Affairs and the Environment, Land and Sea, Member of the European Parliament, Representative of the European Commission, and Colleagues from FAO and WHO.

Introduction

It gives me great pleasure to be here with you today in Rome and to open this joint seminar with our colleagues from the FAO and WHO. On Thursday we celebrate World Food Day and this year its theme brings together two related strands of food security, namely climate change and bioenergy production. It is timely therefore that we are looking at climate change in relation to food and water safety and nutrition.

And the global nature of the challenge presented by climate change emphasises the importance of international cooperation to ensure that we are adequately prepared for the future challenges that we face.

Consumer protection is EFSA’s ultimate goal and, as Executive Director, I am privileged to lead an organisation that is committed to a safe and healthy food supply, produced in a sustainable manner. By providing risk managers with high-quality scientific advice, we ensure that a robust evidence base underpins Europe’s food-related public health policies.

Background

Briefly – and as many of you may be aware – EFSA was established by the European Union in 2002 to strengthen consumer protection and increase the credibility of the EU food supply both for the internal market and for trading partners. EFSA is a science-based organisation and the quality and transparency of that science is critical to the EU overall being able to ensure the safety of its food supply.

One of the key principles underpinning the establishment of EFSA is the functional separation of risk assessment and risk management. Our role is clearly defined as the EU’s risk assessor and, through our scientific opinions and other scientific outputs, we support the European Commission, the European Parliament and Member States in taking effective, appropriate and timely risk management decisions. We are now well equipped to carry out this mandate, with a staff of 370 in Parma and 1000 independent scientific experts contributing to our panels and working groups that have delivered over 1000 opinions and reports and assessed numerous applications, 2200 on flavourings alone.

Climate change and risk assessment

It is widely accepted that our climate is changing and that the process may accelerate well into the 21st century. And climate change is more than just “global warming”; the likelihood of extreme weather events will also increase. We can confidently predict that this will impact not just on agricultural production but also on food and feed safety. As a consequence, reduction in the availability and quality of foods and water may adversely affect nutritional status.  While the entire food chain is likely to be affected, particular problems are predicted in relation to plant health, biohazards, food contaminants, animal health and the use of pesticides.

I would like to mention how climate change might impact on EFSA’s work in just two key areas: animal and plant health. Changes in global temperature, water availability and CO2 levels have the potential to significantly influence pathogen and vector behaviour and, therefore, changes in animal and zoonotic disease distribution can be expected. Bluetongue in northern Europe has already brought this to our attention. The burden of infectious animal diseases may increase due to the complex interaction of factors such as heat stress, nutrient availability and water availability. This could result in changes in veterinary drug usage – an important issue for all of us.

Crops may be similarly affected: changes in plant disease patterns, crop yields, pathogen and vector behaviour, soil quality and irrigation patterns are predicted. As a result, it is likely that patterns of pesticide usage will change, further challenging risk assessors.

It is clear that risk assessment bodies will be faced with new challenges and it is imperative that, as we develop our strategies to meet those challenges, we review and continue to develop our risk assessment methodologies to ensure that they are fit for purpose. Similarly, EFSA must ensure that it has access to expertise on the impact of climate change in its scientific panels and working groups – an important consideration when we renew our Panels next year.

Scientific Cooperation and Data

Due to the global nature of the climate change problem, international cooperation – with both Member States and third countries – will be essential in assessing and managing the associated risks. EFSA is committed to strengthening its relationships with Member States, European bodies, international and third country organisations to share information, data and best practices, identify emerging risks and develop coherent communications. To do so, it has created effective networks comprising more than 1000 experts, 30 national agencies and 200 scientific organisations that are essential in helping us to tackle issues such as climate change.

It is imperative that the international risk assessment community addresses data and information needs in relation to climate change and that any gaps are filled. That is, for instance, why EFSA is working with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre to be able to access their climatic and geographic data. This year, in the context of our cooperation with Member States, we will launch a project aimed at identifying existing data and data gaps in the fields of climate and geography.

Integrated approach

EFSA has a broad and integrated remit covering the entire food chain from the field through to the safety and nutritional aspects of food on the plate. And because risks are often interrelated and complex, it is becoming increasingly important to look at risks in an integrated manner. One of the strengths of the Authority is that, through its multidisciplinary Panels and working groups, it brings together a wide range of European expertise that spans the entire length of the food chain. Our Scientific Committee – the Chair of which, Vittorio Silano, is with us here today – includes the Chairs of EFSA’s ten Scientific Panels and has a unique role in addressing horizontal cross-cutting issues.

Risk assessment is growing in complexity and scientific uncertainties have to be increasingly addressed. Climate change may exacerbate this situation. For example, changes in soil quality may influence the composition and variety of crops available to food processors with potential implications for processing technologies. Similarly, concern over carbon footprints may lead to an increase in local sourcing of foods resulting in changes in food supplies. Extreme weather events may increase the water content of cereals, raising the threat of mycotoxin contamination. All these factors – and I could mention many others – oblige us to continue to build and develop this integrated approach to enable us to respond effectively.

In addition, it is likely that, as the risk of foodborne illness increases with climate change, EFSA will need to consider benefit as well as risk in its assessments.

Emerging Risk

Because of the uncertainties associated with climate change, one of the key areas in which EFSA will contribute to food safety is through the early identification, characterisation and communication of emerging risks.
To that end, we have established a unit specialised in emerging risks at the start of 2008. The unit will strengthen EFSA’s activities in areas such as climate change, in collaboration with the European Commission, Member States, other European agencies (the European Medicines Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control) and with international organisations such as the FAO, WHO and the OIE.

Responsiveness

It is increasingly obvious that climate change can result in sudden and extreme weather events and it is likely that risk assessors and managers will be called on to urgently address risks related to these events. Responsiveness is therefore critical and is a key consideration for EFSA. We have put in place “fast-track” procedures to address urgent food safety issues, and have put them into practice recently in addressing the problems associated with melamine and sunflower oil contamination.

Conclusion

In our Strategic Plan 2009-2013 which we are currently developing, EFSA acknowledges and analyses the challenges presented by climate change, among other factors. The Plan is currently under public consultation on the EFSA website and we welcome your comments.
It presents a vision of how, using its multidisciplinary expertise in an integrated manner, it can support risk managers in protecting the food chain.

I would like to thank FAO and WHO for organising this seminar with us and I look forward to what I’m sure will be a very interesting and stimulating discussion.

Thank you for your kind attention.