Annegaaike Leopold, Calidris Environment b.v.; Charmaine Ajao, European Chemicals Agency (ECHA); and Thomas-Benjamin Seiler, RWTH Aachen University

Is our science influenced by value judgements or are we all objective, “clean hands scientists” to cite philosopher Carl Cranor? This (very) special session on Monday, 27 May, at the SETAC Europe 29th Annual Meeting in Helsinki, which builds upon the successful special session on a shared understanding of science and risk communication held in Rome, will prompt you to think about these questions. Using two issues that are hotly debated in the scientific community – the use of pesticides and the risk posed by food contact chemicals – we will investigate with the speakers and the audience the role philosophical positions and values might play in scientifically diverging views. Why do more data and more rigorous analysis not necessarily resolve some of these scientific divergences? How can the SETAC membership sensibly navigate this essential yet still quite unknown terrain?

We seek to learn about the different “sides” of the scientific discussion and to fuel a discussion about how far we can take the idea of transparent science-based communication, where this meets its limitations, and how we, in the SETAC community, should deal with this phenomenon.

Kevin Elliot from Michigan State University will kick off the entire session and set the scene, focusing on three major ways in which “philosophical positions and values” can result in scientific disagreements: (1) scientists may differ in the background assumptions they make; (2) they may accept different levels or standards of evidence in order to draw conclusions; and (3) they may frame the problem or decision in different ways and therefore call for different kinds of scientific information.

The first example will be that of pesticide use in agriculture. Agriculture is an example of a fast-growing area of research, with major implications for society, and as a consequence is likely to involve value judgements. Should the research focus be on techniques that maximize agricultural production, for example through the use of pesticides, fertilizers and biotechnology, or should the focus be on alternative ways that might better help to protect natural resources, small scale farmers, traditional know-how, fisheries, etc.? These are all questions to which the answers involve value judgements.

Is nature resilient to pesticides? The answer we give depends on how we assess exposure, effects and recovery. On top of this discussion about environmental impact comes the perception in the public that pesticides are a toxic threat. Here, the main concern is about the effect pesticide residues on or in food have on human health. While scientists might argue – and rightly so, based on what they know – that there is little or no risk of negative impact on human health by pesticides, the public sees this differently. They are more concerned about the potential harm through food consumption of pesticide residues rather than the environmental consequences, which are actually much more apparent.

Chemicals from food contact material, our second example, are known to migrate from these materials to food, as is supported by more than 40 years of peer-reviewed publications. This is informed by migration or transfer of food contact chemicals (FCCs) into food, leading to exposure to humans. The “divergence” of scientific thought on food contact chemicals is around risk assessment. At what level of exposure can adverse effects be seen? Are such exposure scenarios realistic? Hence, is the risk real?

Especially with the coming of age of the circular economy, some scientists consider the risk to be increasing. The question then becomes “how do we manage these risks?” What do we find acceptable and what is not? If a risk–benefit analysis needs to be done, do we express this in monetary terms, in terms of quality of life, the condition of the environment or all three? How do we weigh the recycling benefits, for example, against the increased risk of contamination in the environment? Values come into play in answering any and all of these questions.

After each of the series of presentations, the speakers will form an open discussion panel under the inspired guidance of experienced moderators.

This session is a unique opportunity to explore conflicting views in the interest of a broader and more general understanding of scientific divergence, where this might come from, how it resonates outside the scientific community, and how this impacts successful science and risk communication. It is a session not to be missed! Time to think and talk!

The session chairs have invited a diverse group of speakers for this session.  The key contents of the specific topics that the speakers will present is highlighted below, which will help attendees to further understand what diverging views will be presented and discussed.

To set the scene for the discussion on pesticides, Jean-Marc Bonmatin of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France will speak about how the use of pesticides should be critically considered as experimental data can be interpreted differently, depending on experimental design, sources, values and conflicts of interest. He will use the emblematic case of neonicotinoids to show that science is often a contradictory process and to call for a comprehensive approach that includes quality, richness and biodiversity of our environment as an important aim. In response, Juan Gonzalez Valero of Syngenta will support the position that there is an undeniable demand for a shift in crop protection. He will, however, argue that there is no agriculture without crop protection, be it mechanically, chemically or biologically designed, molecule based or built in through genetics. He will argue the need for all these technologies to be safe for humans and the environment, and the protection of food quality and quantity. For him, this means a clear call for innovation and more action where everybody wins. The view from the regulatory side will be presented by Tove Jern from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Finland. She will introduce the Finnish experience of promoting sustainable use of pesticides and innovation. This concept largely relies on extensive training of pesticide users, even with a compulsory exam.

Jane Muncke of the Food Packaging Forum, Switzerland, will separate fact from fiction regarding food contact chemicals and human health. She will argue for more information about the toxicity of substances that are intentionally added to food packaging and, even more importantly, that novel approaches are needed to assess the unintentionally added substances. Further, she will call for an enhanced hazard characterization to address the most prevalent chronic diseases in the human population. Replacing the food contact chemicals of known toxicity might be a justified wish; however, as Thomas Gude of Swiss Quality Testing Services will argue, this has to be done carefully. Concentrations actually appearing in the goods might not be high enough to cause any concern. Replacement chemicals might not be well characterized, and they might not fit into established food safety systems. He will argue in favor of a pragmatic approach and a switch of the focus away from single compounds to full solutions. In Europe, EFSA is the most important authority involved in the assessment of food contact chemicals. Claudia Roncancio Pena will present the role of data and methodologies in the scientific evaluation of food contact materials in the frame of the EFSA risk assessment. She will elaborate on EFSA’s work to collect and integrate information from experimental studies, modeling and data inventories to assess the potential risk posed by food contact materials.

For the pesticides block, the moderators will be Thomas Backhaus from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and Mamta Patel of Chemical Watch, UK. The discussion on food contact chemicals will be moderated by Gunilla Öberg from the University of British Columbia, Canada, and again Mamta Patel. Leading on from a brief, technical discussion focused on each of the specific topics, the speakers and the audience will be guided into the examination of the role of values and philosophical positions, using pesticides and food contact chemicals as case examples and moving on to environmental sciences in general and how we, as SETAC scientists, might deal with these values and positions.

Session information: 10:50 a.m.– 3:30 p.m. | Monday, 27 May | Session Room 203

Authors’ contact information:, and

View job opportunities in the SETAC Career Center
Submit an abstract for SETAC Toronto
Register for the Environmental Risk Assessment of PFAS Meeting
SETAC Helsinki
Submit an abstract for SETAC Cartagena
ET&C Virtual Issue on polar environments
Read the 2018 SETAC Annual Report