Industry research for large-scale sustainability
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Harmless in an emergency

Dear readers

Warnings always make the headlines. Just before many were leaving for the vacations, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced that aspartame was "possibly carcinogenic." The news from the World Health Organization's sub-organization attracted attention and caused uncertainty because many products, from chewing gum to low-calorie coke, contain the artificial sweetener. For health reasons, we should reduce sugar consumption. And now its substitute is also said to be harmful to health. Darn it all!

Taken by itself, "possibly carcinogenic" sounds dangerous. However, it is important to know that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has even stronger labels available: "carcinogenic" and "probably carcinogenic". The category "possibly carcinogenic" also includes agents such as hot drinks. Indeed, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the World Health Organization concludes that it is safe to consume the artificial sweetener aspartame. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) also disagrees: "Aspartame being labeled by IARC as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" does not mean that aspartame is actually linked to cancer." So it is all mouth and no trousers?

Apart from the headlines, most of the media explain and communicate correctly. For example, the NZZ. The IARC only assesses whether a substance can in principle cause cancer and does not take into account how much of it a person would have to consume for there to be a risk of disease. Moderate consumption of aspartame is harmless. Once again, Paracelsus sends his regards: "The quantity makes the poison." A person weighing 70 kilograms would have to drink at least nine to 14 cans of a beverage containing high levels of aspartame every day. At 3.3 dl per can, that's between three and four and a half liters. Who does that? Even when it's hot at the beach. For health reasons, it is not even recommended to drink more than four liters of water per day. That, too, could push the kidneys to their limits.

The "aspartame" case consequently dissolved into thin air rather quickly in the media. The potential poison is put into perspective, and rightly so. But it is different with pesticides. There, the IARC label "possibly carcinogenic" continues to be used as a term for activism. When the IARC classifies a pesticide as "possibly carcinogenic," media reliably jumps on the bandwagon. And pressured by media, the authorities also lapse into activism. The poison must be banned immediately. Objective classification becomes difficult. And unlike the benefits of artificial sweeteners for health-conscious consumers, the benefits for the protection of agricultural crops that are at risk are suppressed. Food waste, erosion control and sustainable use of resources suddenly don't matter. This is true, for example, of the fungicide chlorothalonil or the herbicide glyphosate: Along with, for example, drinks hotter than 65 degrees, red meat, shift work and the hairdressing profession they figure in the same IARC category like Aspartame. Conclusion: It is measured with two cubits. Double standards are applied.

At the end of July, Kloten was startled. In the airport community, the Japanese beetle was discovered for the first time north of the Alps. In Ticino, the pest has already taken up habitat, coming from Italy. The glutton is not choosy and pounces on a wide range of native plants. It can cause devastating damage to gardens, natural areas and agriculture. The pragmatic reaction of the authorities was correct. Without plant protection products, there is currently no chance of effectively combating the harmful beetle in time to prevent its further spread. According to Blick, this is also the opinion of a Piedmontese organic winegrower (issue from August 9). The organic farmer was faced with the alternative of either stopping agricultural production or spraying insecticides again. However, additional research is needed to combat the beetle. In an interview with Blick-Online, an ETH doctoral student presented her research project. A mildewy pathogen is supposed to kill the Japanese beetle. But its effect so far is slow and can at best contain the population. To eliminate the pests completely, insecticides are needed.

For this reason, systematic spraying is now being carried out in Kloten in the vicinity of the sites where the beetles are found. With the rapid emergency approval of the insecticide acetamiprid for specific application, the invading pest can be effectively controlled. Time is of the essence. With the insecticide, the Japanese beetles must be eliminated before they lay eggs and the larvae wait in the soil for the next spring. The effort to control the Japanese beetle in Kloten is great: even the civil defense was called in. Apart from spraying in open spaces and private gardens, traps with attractants are set up. In addition, according to TeleZüri, an association wants to track down Japanese beetle larvae in the soil with search dogs.

As the media coverage shows, there is great sympathy for the hunt for the Japanese beetle. The public is told that the pesticide is safe for humans. After a waiting period of three weeks, even cabbage from the gardens can be eaten without hesitation. With tomatoes the period lasts even only three days. In addition, if applied correctly - no spraying of blossoms - it hardly endangers any bees. The example of Kloten underlines the fact that when pests become a threat in our midst, we have to be prepared. That makes sense to practically everyone. Our plants in gardens and parks need effective protection.

On second look, the new reality is startling: When a pest like the Japanese beetle threatens our roses and lawns, there is immediate intervention, with emergency approvals to ensure that the necessary insecticides can be applied. If the diseases and pests only affect farmers, authorities and the public seldom approve the use of plant protection products. Then fear-mongering against pesticides is closer at-heart than pragmatic protection of resources and yields. As with the interpretation of the IARC label "possibly carcinogenic": here, too, double standards are applied.

The double standards are obvious. But one can always improve. Agricultural crops, and thus much of our food, are at risk - from floods or droughts, pests, diseases and competing weeds. And in view of global interconnectedness, it is impossible to prevent pests from migrating. That the Japanese beetle chose Kloten is not without a certain irony. But the fact remains that farmers are constantly faced with emergencies. Here, too, pragmatic, careful use of crop protection products is often the only solution. After all, it is not only pests and plant diseases from foreign countries that cause damage. This is also true for native ones. Instead of alarmism, objective discussion and common sense are called for.

Your swiss-food editorial team

The swiss-food platform provides information relating to agriculture and nutrition. It is committed to providing factual information and promoting large-scale sustainability.
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