Fipronil crisis: Why should we keep on using these toxic substances?

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Organic farming is a viable and healthy alternative to industrial agriculture, argues Martin Dermine. [Maya83/Flickr]

The withdrawal of millions of eggs from the market produced in the Netherlands and Belgium should motivate the EU to shift towards a different model of agriculture, argues Martin Dermine.

Martin Dermine is a veterinarian, beekeeper and project coordinator at Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe.

But this is not the first scandal linked to Fipronil. This insecticide was made famous, together with the no-less-famous neonicotinoids, because they have been responsible for the death of millions of honeybees in Europe. Fipronil is highly toxic to insects; this makes it very efficient and popular. Therefore it was widely used on crops in the past as very low doses applied to the seeds before sowing protected plants against crop pests and at the same time intoxicated bees harvesting on the nectar and pollen of those fields. Fortunately, after years of massive honey bee colonies die-offs, the European Commission strongly restricted the use of Fipronil in 2013 and this year, BASF decided not to apply for a renewal of the EU authorisation for the few remaining authorised uses.

One synthetic chemical less in our food? Actually not. This month, we are observing a repetition of the 1990’s and 2000’s scandal of Fipronil. But this time it is not linked to bees but to human health and fraud. People have been eating for months (sometimes high) doses of a forbidden pesticide because of a model of agriculture that is misleadingly presented to the population as safe and cheap.

This crisis shows that this model of agriculture does not come without danger. Every day, the EU population consumes residues of pesticides in their food, mainly through the fruits and vegetables they eat but also through eggs (as we have learned) or milk (cows used to eat Fipronil-treated maize and milk contained Fipronil residues). Furthermore, apart from being contaminated by pesticides, the quality of the food conventional agriculture produces is lower than what is observed in more nature-friendly agriculture: fewer vitamins, antioxidants and micronutrients.

The Belgian federal sanitary agency has defended itself for not having found Fipronil in routine eggs controls because it is not an authorised substance. Only authorised substances are tested. Testing all existing substances would have a huge and unbearable cost. It is very likely that such contaminations with non-authorised substances regularly happen and thus it is impossible to claim that chemical-intensive agriculture is safe!

This new crisis should be another nail in the coffin of an agricultural model that is unsustainable, polluting and dangerous. But what is striking is that the question we hear today is: “where did the controls and communication fail?” rather than “why would we need these toxic substances to produce our food?” The agribusiness sector presents the use of chemicals in food production as safe but evidence shows that chronic exposure to low-doses of mixtures of pesticides has an effect on, for instance, our hormonal system and on our immunity. Fipronil was shown, at low-doses, to produce neurodevelopmental disorders. So when regulators try to reassure citizens that there is no danger, they should probably look at what science tells us and be humble before our lack of knowledge…

High densities of the same plant (monoculture) or the same animal species favour pests. Monoculture is non-natural and hence needs artificial treatments to be maintained. While monocultures of maize, cereals, oilseed rape, and others are boulevards for the development of crop pests, industrial chicken pens are paradises for chicken red lice. Comparison can go on with intensive pork or milk production that lead to bacterial proliferations and more antibiotic needs. But let us stop the comparisons there as the entire conventional agriculture system is based on the same model of concentration of one animal or plant species.

Nutrition is the basis of our health. Another way of producing food without pesticides exists. Making a shift from our post-Second World War model of industrial agriculture towards one that is based on the now enormous knowledge about natural solutions would prevent future crises such as this one. Many sectors of agriculture are already on the move. For instance in many areas, the wine sector is slowly evolving towards a pesticide-free agriculture for the sake of workers’, bystanders’ and consumers’ health as well as that of the environment. This is a response to what consumers ask for and it is made possible thanks to science and knowledge. Livestock farming should follow the same evolution: scientific knowledge on the biology of the pests and management techniques permit to avoid relying on synthetic chemicals. Furthermore a new agricultural revolution is needed, with smaller farms, more diversified to avoid monocultures. Farms that are consumer-oriented rather than market-oriented in order to increase quality rather than shareholders’ profits.

In western Europe, such small scale farms are developing quickly. This model of agriculture should be strongly promoted by European policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy or Horizon 2020 research programmes. Small scale farms create many more jobs than industrial agriculture, they do not harm the environment, they produce healthy and uncontaminated food and they participate in the local economy as well as contribute to Europe’s self-sufficiency and resilience. Producing in Europe cereals to feed hens and export their eggs outside the EU while the EU imports a great deal of the fruits and vegetables it consumes makes no sense. Let us re-localise our agriculture!

The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy will soon be debated around the EU. This will be the opportunity to discuss how to promote such forms of agriculture, to avoid further scandals such as this one. It would be beneficial for the EU in terms of employment, health and the quality of the environment.