Phasing out pesticides is the chance for Europe to heal its environment and economy

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

"If we had to remove 150 metres of the cultivated agricultural area from every French field, between 20% and 30% of that area would be 'amputated'. It would be a tragedy, and it would amputate agricultural production," said Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume. [EPA/PATRICK PLEUL]

The recent re-authorisation of glyphosate controversy highlighted the many issues surrounding pesticides, their purpose and our dependency on them, as well as the harm they bring to­­­­­ our health and the environment, writes Natacha Cingotti.

Natacha Cingotti is a senior policy officer at the Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL).

The European institutions have to make health and environment their absolute priority in the current review of the European legislation on pesticides and the European Parliament’s scrutinising of the authorisation process for those substances.

A reform of the authorisation process in order to truly put health first would keep toxic substances out of the market, prevent serious health conditions and send investors a strong signal that future economic opportunities lie with the development of safe alternatives.

Over the last two years, pesticides have made headlines on a daily basis. The debate the re-authorisation of glyphosate alone has raised significant questions about the way the European legislation on pesticides is applied. The discussions revealed such a disconnect between the work of authorities and citizens’ expectations that the European Parliament created a special committee to investigate the process.

Numerous studies have pointed out health-harming effects of pesticide exposure as well as a link between the intense use of pesticides and biodiversity loss. Scientists demand urgent action to reduce environmental and human exposure.

Meanwhile, the body of evidence is also growing on the economic impact: a recent study found that the health costs associated with exposure to chemical substances including pesticides in the everyday environment could exceed 10% of the global gross domestic product (GDP).

Globally, hunger is on the rise again, driven by armed conflicts and climate change. While we need structural changes to allow for conflict resolution and climate change mitigation policies, the pesticides industry’s favorite claim has been that their products would, in fact, help feed the world.

But according to top United Nations experts, ‘excessive use of pesticides’ harms human health, biodiversity and consequently the ability of our planet to feed us. A 2017 UN report even explicitly warns that ‘it is misleading to claim they [pesticides] are vital to ensuring food security’ – in particular because exposure to pesticides is linked to a series of serious health conditions ranging from cancers to endocrine disruption, developmental or reproduction disorders.

From a European perspective, the ongoing evaluation of the pesticides law can allow to finally implement the rules properly and fully, starting with applying automatic bans on the substances that are harmful to health and the environment.

A special committee in the European Parliament is currently looking into the authorisation process for pesticides and will suggest reforms as to how scientific evidence is gathered, processed, and used to make decisions.

These are important opportunities for Europe to deliver on its own commitment to come up with a Union’s strategy for a non-toxic environment by the end of this year. Such a strategy should also include proposals to reform the Common agriculture policy in the future, to support phasing out of the substances that are toxic for farmers and consumers and to incentivise alternatives that protect health and environment, such as integrated weed management or the development and use of low-risk pesticides of biological origin.

The momentum is now. Scientists and citizens have long been asking for Europe to change the course of action, and today several legislative processes provide European decision-makers and industry players the opportunity to do so – understanding that phasing out pesticides once and for all is tomorrow’s real business and health opportunity would indeed be the truly visionary approach.

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