EU lawmakers raise concerns about UK ‘regression’ on pesticides

Environmental campaigners voiced concerns over the UK lifting a ban on bee-killing pesticides [Rebekka D / Pixabay]

Lawmakers in the European Parliament have raised concerns about possible UK regression on pesticides and gene editing at a meeting on the new EU-UK trade agreement on Thursday (14 January).

At the session, European Commission representatives explained the impact of the trade agreement on energy, environment and health, but MEPs were left asking for more clarification over pesticides and gene editing.

“My personal opinion on the answer regarding pesticides is very poor. You basically didn’t answer it,” environment committee chair, Pascal Canfin, told the Commission representatives.

The EU-UK trade agreement includes non-regression on environmental standards where these impact climate or give an unfair trade advantage.

But only weeks after it came into force, MEPs voiced concerns of possible breaches and questioned how much clarity there is on what counts as non-regression, how to prove it has occurred and how to rebalance it.

“For example, the UK has announced that they want to deregulate gene editing … that is a huge debate in Europe,” said Bas Eickhout, a Green MEP. “That is clearly a regression, so how does the non-regression clause play out? How will that work?”

Since the deal came into force, the UK has launched a public consultation on gene editing, showing significant divergence from the EU, where an European Court of Justice ruled said in 2018 that this came under the EU GMO Directive.

Pascal Canfin, chair of the environment committee, also raised concerns about pesticides, saying: “I just heard – I don’t know if it can be confirmed or not – that the UK political will might be to diverge from the current frame narrated from the EU law and authorise pesticides that are not authorised anymore in the UK or the EU.”

Earlier this month, the UK granted emergency authorisation on bee-killing pesticides, called neonicotinoids.

Ten EU countries currently use this and it will only be approved for limited use to protect sugar beet crops from aphids, but it sparked protest from NGOs, including petitions from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

The UK government has also come under fire from shadow environment secretary, Labour MP Luke Pollard, who said it was rolling back a 2017 pledge to uphold the ban.

The Commission has told EURACTIV that it is aware of news reports of pesticide use, but had no comment on whether this is a breach of the agreement.

The EU executive confirmed to the Parliament’s environment committee that pesticides are covered by the non-regression clause but that they are not yet subject of any specific UK regulation diverging from EU rules.

“Both parties recognise each other’s regionalisation – the risk management measures that each party does in order to contain or eradicate enemy diseases and plant pests,” said Stefan Fuehring, an EU official who is part of the European Commission’s UK Task Force, although he added this was subject to some exceptions.

EU regulations still cover imported goods, so UK products that significantly diverge may have to go through split systems, where the product for sale in the EU is kept separately and dealt with under EU regulations, like the strict anti-pesticide rules.

“We have a very strict system of pesticides in the EU with a maximum residue level,” which were set by the Commission’s agriculture directorate, Fuehring said.

“We shall control that at the border,” the official added, saying: “food entering the EU cannot be allowed to enter the EU if the maximum residue level is above it”.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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