Parliament seals pesticides deal amid opposition

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The European Parliament yesterday (13 January) voted to restrict the use of toxic pesticides, despite strong opposition from the UK, Spain and Hungary and calls for better evaluation of the legislation's impact upon agricultural production and food prices.

The package still needs to be formally adopted by the Council, which remains divided over the issue, despite the compromise reached before Christmas (see EurActiv 19/12/08). 

The deal will lead to a ban of a number of hazardous substances that pose a potential threat to human health and the environment, and obliges member states to embrace more sustainable use of pesticides. 

The UK, Ireland, Spain and Hungary oppose the deal, claiming that it will seriously affect agricultural production and increase food prices. However, the four countries put together will not be enough to form a blocking minority for a qualified majority vote in the Council, which is likely to adopt the package as an 'A point' (adopted without discussion).

"The deal voted yesterday is secure and binding," said a Council spokeswoman, adding that once the Regulation on pesticide use and market authorisation was published in the Official Journal, it would apply immediately. 

But she said the Directive on the sustainable use of pesticides could be considered somewhat "less binding" as a directive can, to some extent, be more freely interpreted and transposed into national law. The directive contains a lot of implementing measures which need to be further specified by means of the comitology procedure, giving opponents the chance to both delay them and water them down.

Those not happy with the deal can also use the opportunity of the mid-term review of the legislation to reopen the issue, particularly in the context of a new College of Commissioners and a new European Parliament.

Positions: 

Green MEP Hiltrud Breyer (Greens/EFA, DE), the European Parliament's draftswoman for the dossier on the use and authorisation of pesticides and the MEP who steered the legislation through Parliament, said: "This agreement is a win-win situation, not only for the environment, public health and consumer protection, but also for the European economy, since it will lead to more innovation, placing the EU at the forefront of this sector." 

MEP Christa Klaß (EPP-ED, DE), the Parliament's draftswoman of the dossier on the sustainable use of pesticides, described the directive as a "step in right direction to protect European consumers and the environment". She stressed that "risk management is the key, with training for professional users and adequate information for private users". 

The European Commission welcomed the adoption of the package, underlining that the new legislation will "increase the protection of human health and the environment, lead to a better protection of agricultural production and extend and deepen the single market of plant protection products". 

All the Parliament's political groups welcomed the vote, except British Conservative MEPs, who argued that the new legislation will reduce yields of a number of foods, including carrots, cereals, potatoes, onions and parsnips, whilst pushing up prices for consumers. "There has been no balance whatsoever in the Parliament's position. MEPs have failed to see pesticides as necessary tools in maintaining our crops," deplored MEP Robert Sturdy. 

While the adoption of cut-off criteria remains of great concern to industry, other areas of the new legislation, such as the new rules on parallel trade and national provisional authorisations, were hailed by the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA)

The legislation on the sustainable use of pesticides is also "largely welcomed by industry because it formalises with our long standing commitment to the safe, environmentally sound use of our products," said 
Friedhelm Schmider, ECPA's director general

However, he warned against any "arbitrary use reduction" which would neither be an appropriate means of risk reduction nor a promoter of sustainable practices. "Indeed, there is no direct systematic link between the amount of product used (whether measured in total quantity or number of treatments) and the risk involved. It is crucial that this perspective be considered when establishing national action plans on the sustainable use of plant protection products," Schmider argued.

Pekka Pesonensecretary general of Copa-Cogeca, the professional organisation of EU farmers, lamented that the Parliament's decision concerning some cut-off criteria "had not been made on the basis of a sound, risk-based assessment," but stressed his belief that "effective plant protection [...] should generally remain possible". 

He underlined that the full consequences of the new legislation on the EU farming sector would "depend strongly on how it is implemented," and urged EU institutions to begin a detailed impact assessment to examine the full implications of the agreement. "In particular, it must also evaluate the implications of imports from non-EU countries," because if the use of a substance is forbidden for European farmers, their use should be banned for imported products as well. If that is not the case, end consumers will still end up buying products featuring the banned substances and the competitiveness of European agriculture will be distorted, he explained.

The Organisation of European Industries Transforming Fruit and Vegetables (OEITFL) stated that the "regulation leaves the industry with uncertainty about its ability to source locally grown vegetables when a number of indispensable pesticides that are required to grow the crops could be withdrawn". 

The European rail sector expresssed fears that the new legislation "could restrict the ability of railways to use chemical solutions to maintain the safety of the rail network" as pesticides are used to control vegetation on rail tracks and emergency routes to allow track works and to ensure that drivers have clear view of all signals.

"The imposition of buffer zones and other restrictions on the use of plant protection products could pose problems for safely maintaining Europe's railways," said secretary general of the Association of European Rail Infrastructure Managers (EIM) Michael Robson.

The water services sector also welcomed the decision. "Any regulation preventing our industry to deal with polluting and unhealthy elements in water is good for our 450 million consumers as well as for a sustainable environment , which we absolutely need to keep providing pure and healthy water to the Europeans in the future, EUREAU, the European Federation of National Associations of Water and Waste Water Services, stated. 

"For EUREAU, it's good to see the increased cross-links with the criteria and objectives of the existing drinking water legislation and the Water Framework Directive," said its Brussels-based secretary general, Pierre-Yves Monette.

Greenpeace's European Unit deplored that the new laws leave the European citizens and the environment "exposed to hundreds of harmful substances that can disrupt hormone levels in the body and damage the immune and nervous systems" and fails to immediately ban all pesticides that can cause cancer or harm the reproductive system. "The lack of ambition of this law means that food in Europe will continue to be contaminated by many dangerous chemicals for years to come," said Manfred Krautter, Greenpeace's chemicals expert.

Other NGOs hailed the vote as a step towards better public health. However, Monica Guarinoni, deputy director at the Health & Environment Alliance, regretted that the Parliament had "agreed to go soft on pesticides linked with neurological and immunological damage to the development of unborn child".   

"The agreement also undermines the rights of national governments to take local authorisation decisions, thus opening the door for industry to take aggressive legal action against national decisions that don't go its way," added Elliott Cannell, a spokesperson for Pesticide Action Network

Timeline: 
  • Later this year: The regulation will enter into force and need to be applied as such. Pesticides that can be placed on the market under current legislation will remain available until their existing authorisation expires. 
  • By early 2011: Member states must implement the Directive on sustainable use of pesticides.
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