EU reaches deal on banning toxic pesticides

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Negotiators from EU member states and the European Parliament have reached a compromise on the controversial pesticides ‘package’, ending a long battle over what substances should be banned due to their potential risk for human health and the environment.

The compromise reached in behind closed-doors talks during the evening of 17 December is set to ban a number of hazardous pesticides and cut down the overall use of so-called plant protection products. The texts are now set to be approved in a vote in Parliament in mid-January. 

The agreement on new market authorisation rules divides the EU into three zones (north, centre, south) inside of which mutual recognition of pesticides will become the rule. However, member states will still be allowed to ban a product on the basis of specific environmental or agricultural circumstances. 

It also introduces bans on: 

  • Certain highly toxic chemicals, namely those which are genotoxic, carcinogenic or toxic to reproduction (unless their effect would in practice be negligible), and; 
  • neurotoxic, immunotoxic and certain endocrine-disrupting substances if deemed to pose a significant risk.  

However, the deal allows continued use of both the above-mentioned groups of chemicals for up to five years, if they are proven essential for crop survival. Otherwise, products containing certain hazardous substances are to be replaced within three years if safer alternatives are shown to exist.   

The deal on sustainable use of pesticides:

  • Asks member states to adopt national action plans on safer use of pesticides as well as overall usage reduction targets;
  • bans aerial crop spraying, with exceptions subject to approval by member-state authorities;
  • asks member states to establish approporiate measures, such as buffer zones, to protect aquatic organisms, and;
  • bans the use of pesticides in public places, such as parks and school grounds, or at the very minimum asks for their use to be kept to a minimum.

Positions

"We can't accept the trialogue negotiations," said Phil Newton, senior communications manager at the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), describing the proposals as "bad legislation based on incorrect science," with the cut-off criteria based on ideology, fear and perception. 

In particluar, the inclusion of endocrine disruptors in the list of potential substances to be banned is problematic, he said. The current criteria for endocrine disruptors is only an "interim definition" based on "incorrect assumptions", Newton said, and would therefore concern more substances than scientifically proven.

"Our reservations and concerns over lack of scientific input regarding the proposed legislation have been ignored," added ECPA regulatory affairs director Euros Jones

However, he underlined that it was positive that the overall legislative process so far had brought a "surge of unanimity" in the food sector and throughout the food chain on the need for science-based legislation.

Health and environment-related non-governmental organisations (NGOs) cautiously welcomed the deal as "a step towards better health through environmental protection" and a means of "allowing the EU to move on to a better system without further delays". 

Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of COPA-COGECA, which represents European farmers, said the compromise was not perfect, particularly because authorisation of certain substances is still hazard-based, and "we would have favoured risk-based decision-making". He also joined ECPA's criticism of the categorisation of endocrine disruptors.

Pesonen said farmers are not against stricter rules on pesticides in general, but underlined that if the use of a substance or a product is forbidden for European farmers, their use should be banned for the imported products as well. If that is not the case, end consumers will still end up buying products including the banned substances and the competitiveness of European agriculture will be distorted, he added.

Freshfel Europe, the European Fresh Produce Association, noted that the additional cut-off criteria introduced by the compromise will phase out even more active substances compared to the previous compromise agreed among member states. It regrets that the consequences were not measured in detail through a solid impact assessment. 

"The loss of some essential active substances will have a concrete impact for the horticultural sector. It will become a serious challenge to control certain pests in the future, in particular for minor crops," said Freshfel Europe in a statement. Therefore, member states need to, in some cases, "take benefit of a derogation clause to continue using certain active substances if certain pests cannot be contained. Such a clause will therefore be crucial to maintain economically viable horticulture in certain regions," it added.

Health and environment NGOs "cautiously welcomed" the compromise as a "step towards better health through environmental protection".

PAN (Pesticides Action Network) Europe, the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) and the European Environment Bureau (EEB)  hailed the compromise "because it means the creation of an EU-wide pesticides blacklist, which removes some of Europe's most hazardous pesticides from the market, and therefore from food products grown in the EU".  

They also welcome the fact that member states need to prepare national action plans to reduce the use of pesticides and hail the idea of applying integrated pest management from 2014.

However, "the major downside of the deal," they say, is that it fails to include the environment committee's demand to eliminate the division of the EU into three authorisation zones, what "reduces the control of member states over whether or not to reject a hazardous pesticide within their territory". 

Background

Amid growing public concern over the impact of pesticides, the Commission presented in July 2006 a 'pesticides package' aimed at protecting human health and the environment from their dangerous or excessive use in agriculture. 

The package includes a new Regulation to tighten pesticide usage and authorisation rules in Europe and a Framework Directive laying down common objectives and requirements for sustainable use of pesticides.

Stakeholder debate on the package has mainly focused on the proposed shift away from risk-based assessment of substances to hazard-based criteria for granting market authorisations. The market ban on substances that pose potentially severe risks to human health and the environment ('cut-off criteria') was lauded by health and environmental NGO and heavily criticised by industry.

Timeline

  • 12-13 Jan. 2009: Parliament's second reading on the 'pesticides package' scheduled.

Further Reading

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