50 years after Silent Spring, the EU still does not get the message

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Pesticides and agricultural intensification are the main causes of biodiversity destruction, suggesting the predictions of the famous book 'Silent Spring' by Rachel Carson are now becoming reality, writes Hans Muilerman.

Hans Muilerman is chemical officer at Pesticide Action Network Europe, an environmental organisation.

"'Along the roads laurel, viburnum, and alder, great ferns and wild flowers delighted the traveller’s eyes …' But 'then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled in the community … Everywhere was a shadow of death'.

The famous book Silent Spring of Rachel Carson starts with 'a fable of tomorrow', picturing 'a town in the heart of America where all life seems to live in harmony with its surroundings'.

In our lifetime we have been witnessing this fable becoming reality. Frogs and bats are poisoned by pesticides and dying by mysterious fungi, bird populations are decreasing at an alarming speed, even abundant birds in the past such as skylarks on arable land are threatened with extinction. Bees and butterflies are dying. Pesticides and agricultural intensification are the main causes of this destruction.

In a landmark study of 12 national scientific institutes of research performed in eight West and East-European countries (Basic and Applied Ecology 11 (2010) 97–105), Flavia Geiger and colleagues studied the effects of agricultural intensification. They looked at 13 components of intensification in agriculture and the clearest relation with the decrease of biodiversity found was the use of pesticides. Especially the use of insecticides and fungicides had consistent negative effects on biodiversity.  

Since 1991 the European Union has a very strict regulation on pesticides to protect human health and the environment and this protection should prevail over the interests of crop production. One might ask why this regulation is so ineffective in protecting wildlife in Europe.

This brings us to the Brussels arena where white could be white but also just as easy be black.

The strict regulation to protect wildlife can be watered down by Commission and member states in a procedure called 'comitology'. In this procedure, the European Commission and the EU member states (represented by their Ministries of Agriculture) are capable of twisting and turning the rules behind closed doors.

The outcome is generally very positive for industry and farmers but not for the environment. Dozens of pesticides show a 'high risk' for birds or for mammals or for bees, but still Commission and member states decide to approve these pesticides. PAN-Europe recently published a report on 88 pesticides evaluated in a special procedure called ‘resubmission’(PAN report on resubmission) and this report clearly shows the EU policy that even very harmful pesticides for wildlife will not be banned.

The official argument by the Commission's DG Health and Consumer protection is that member states are the ones that should impose mitigation measures to protect wildlife but it is totally unsure if this happens and even if this would be the case, the measures are enforced at all.

And it is not only this 88. The reluctance to protect the environment continues. A recent symptomatic example of this behaviour is the legal situation concerning the Chlorpyrifos.

Chlorpyrifos is an insecticide used on grapes and potatoes which was approved provisionally in 2006. However, the conditions for approval – show in 2-years time that high risks for birds and mammals are acceptable – are not even fulfilled today. Additionally to that, Chlorpyrifos is a persistent and bioaccumulative chemical, it is travelling long-range and is shown to be present almost everywhere in the environment creating a continued exposure to wildlife.

Fifty years after Rachel Carson’s book was published the EU is looking the other way and we are saying goodbye forever to many beautiful plants and animals. EU has high standards for protecting wildlife but as it comes to decision-making the rules are bending towards the interest of companies and wildlife is suddenly 'forgotten'."

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