Commission tells member states to improve sustainability of pesticide use

Aerial spraying of pesticides is now only permitted in very restricted areas in the EU. [B Brown/Shutterstock]

The European Commission said on Tuesday (10 October) that member states must do more to ensure pesticides are used sustainably to avoid putting human or environmental health at risk.

In a report published on Tuesday, the EU executive said member states’ “patchy” implementation of the EU rules on pesticide use has held the bloc back from achieving the full health benefits promised by the 2009 Pesticides Directive.

According to the report, “if used according to the authorised conditions of use, [EU-approved plant protection products] have no identified harmful effects on human and animal health, and no unacceptable effects on the environment”.

The Commission said the EU has the world’s strictest pesticide authorisation procedures, yet it acknowledged that growing public concern over the safety of pesticides was a catalyst for this latest sustainability drive.

“I know first-hand that citizens are concerned about the impact of the use of pesticides on their health and the environment,” said Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety. “We take these concerns into consideration and we are working with the member states to achieve sustainable use of pesticides in the way we grow and produce our food.”

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Lack of measurable targets

All EU member states have adopted National Action Plans (NAPs) giving measurable targets and timescales for the reduction of pesticide use. But according to the EU executive, the ambition and implementation of these plans is anything but consistent.

Many NAPs focus on training for pesticide users or rules for testing equipment but lack detail about the protection of specific ecosystems and drinking water. What is more, “in around 80% of cases, action plans do not specify how the achievement of targets or objectives will be measured”, the report stated.

The report pointed out that many member states have established measures to stop pesticides ending up in watercourses, including equipment modifications and financial incentives for farmers to install pesticide buffer zones. But the coverage of these zones tends to be “very limited” and the ambition of their targets too low.

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Water monitoring tests carried out in 16 member states in 2012 revealed that 20% of groundwater and 16% of rivers had “poor chemical status”.

Pushing integrated pest management

The answer, according to the report, is for EU member states to cut their reliance on pesticides by moving to a system of integrated pest management (IPM). The Commission says IPM “aims at keeping the use of pesticides and other forms of intervention to levels that are economically and ecologically justified and that reduce or minimise risk to human health and the environment”.

This can be achieved, the EU executive says, by using other forms of intervention such as physical, non-chemical and sustainable biological methods to protect crops and discourage pests.

EU fact-finding missions found that farmers generally do implement IPM to some extent but the report concluded that it had great untapped potential as a method to protect consumers and the environment from the harmful effects of pesticides.

Greenpeace’s food and agriculture director Marco Contiero told in September that the focus of IPM should be on prevention and that chemical pesticides should only be used as a last resort.

“If all [other] approaches do not work and there is pressure from a pest on a field, then using pesticides which have been identified as safe can makes sense,” Contiero noted. “What we find less acceptable is that these products are being presented as a sustainable solution.”

According to sources from the agricultural industry, precision farming tools, although developed for crop nutrition purposes, have been used successfully to apply pesticides in a smart way. This, they say, has helped farmers to achieve effective results using smaller doses, generating cost savings and reducing the negative environmental impact of pesticides.

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