Pesticides: Striking the right balance?


Debate over the use of pesticides in agriculture is taking a new twist as an EU proposal to substitute the most dangerous substances with safer alternatives encounters opposition from farmers, who argue that bans will only exacerbate the crisis caused by rising food prices.

Pesticides are considered essential to protect crops from insects, rodents and fungi. However, they can also cause environmental damage such as water pollution and present risks to human health. Potential health risks include cancer, genetic disturbances and damage to the immune system.

Amid growing public concern over the impact of such plant protection products, the Commission presented, in July 2006, a set of proposals aimed at protecting human health and the environment from dangerous or excessive use of pesticides in agriculture. Once adopted, these proposals would replace the current 1991 Directive on the approval of pesticides in the EU.

The Commission's 'pesticide package' consists of two proposals: 

  • A new Regulation to tighten pesticide usage and authorisation rules in Europe, and;
  • Framework Directive laying down common objectives and requirements for sustainable use of pesticides. 

A Eurobarometer on EU citizens' general fears about food shows that 63% are concerned about pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables (EURACTIV 08/02/06).

The draft 
concerning the placement of plant protection products on the market proposes:

  • Tightening the environmental  and health criteria for approving active substances before they are allowed onto EU markets. Approved substances would appear in a positive list, while the others would be banned by default. The list would be open for revision at any moment, using the fast-track 'comitology' procedure.
  • Reducing the time  required to approve new substances from 4-6 years to two years, strengthening the role of the European Food Safety Agency in the authorisation process.
  • Encouraging the replacement of dangerous substances by placing them on a 'candidate list' for substitution. Evaluation of whether suitable alternatives exist would be done by member states. 
  • Compulsory mutual recognition of authorised products within a specified geographical zone (except for products using substances on the candidate list).  
  • The draft regulation also introduces new rules concerning data protection to safeguard the intellectual property rights of chemical manufacturers.  

The draft 
on Community action for sustainable use of pesticides aims to promote rational use of pesticides and recourse to non-chemical plant protection methods. It proposes:

  • ban on aerial spraying, except for strictly defined special cases.
  • National action plans on the safer handling of pesticides.
  • Training for professional users.
  • Certification and safety checks  of equipment as well as measures governing the handling, storage and packaging of pesticides.
  • Protection of the aquatic environment

Whereas environmental and health NGOs have welcomed the pesticides review, farmers and pesticide producers fear the proposed stricter authorisation rules will remove harmless substances from the market and weigh down their businesses with increased bureaucracy.

One of the most contentious issues of the new regulation is a proposal to include so-called 'cut-off criteria' for substances used in the production of pesticides. Indeed, the Commission is proposing a market ban  on a wide range of 'active' substances that pose potentially severe risks to humanity and the environment, namely endocrine disruptors and carcinogenic and genotoxic substances (EURACTIV 13/07/06). 

Both the Parliament and Council have backed the measure so far (EURACTIV 24/10/07 & 24/06/08). But farmers' groups and pesticide producers argue that the proposed bans are based on "assumptions" rather than science. They are calling for scientific risk assessments to determine whether the health benefits of such bans would outweigh the economic cost to industry and lower agricultural yields (EURACTIV 05/02/08). 

A debate on the role of pesticides in guaranteeing sustainable food production has also been launched in the context of increasing commodity prices. Indeed, some studies argue that restrictions on pesticide use could lead to a decline in Europe's overall agricultural productivity and self-sufficiency as well as to higher prices and increased EU reliance on food imports.

To see stakehodlers' reactions to the final deal, see 'Positions' section of EURACTIV 19/12/2008 and 14/01/2009.

"We want to ensure that citizens today and in the future do not have their health endangered by the use of pesticides, and can benefit from a safe, clean and rich environment," said EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, unveiling the strategy in 2006.

However, the proposed revision of the EU rules on the market authorisation of pesticides has upset both the pesticide industry and farmers' organisations.

COPA-COGECA, which  represents European farmers and cooperatives, argues that in its current form, the 'pesticides package' "will seriously reduce the opportunities for farmers to grow the healthy plants that consumers want" and affect food availability. 

"Everyone agrees that the use of chemicals must be kept to a minimum. Today, this is done via a safe, secure and science-based approach. We want to keep it this way," it stated. It also said "arguing, like the Parliament does, that simple volume reduction will lead to a more sustainable use of pesticides" was "misleading" and thus improved EU legislation must introduce "an objective, honest and fair dialogue with consumers on the advantages and disadvantages of these products". 

"Losing up to 80% of crop protection products would make EU agriculture unsustainable, leading to increased dependency on food imports," said Luc Peeters of COPA-COGECA, warning against the 'cut-off approach'.

COPA-COGECA has also criticised the 'pesticides package' for its "incoherence". "It wants to base reduction targets for pesticide use on statistics which do not exist. It prescribes buffer zones that in some countries will be impossible to meet and calls for a 'passport' registering pesticide use for potentially every single grain of cereal grown in the EU," said COPA President 
Donal Cashman.

The European Landowners Organisation hopes that the package "will maintain a high level of protection for health and the environment while being consistent with the rest of the environmental legislative package [on water, soil, nitrates, etc.] and promote sustainability through proper, scientifically-based risk assessment, not hazard-based cut-off criteria". The organisation said the package must "not lead to a radical reduction in the use of PPPs which would adversely affect the activities of land users". 

The European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), which represents pesticide manufacturers, argues that "the proposal introduces unnecessary new hurdles for the authorisation of pesticides" and acts against the Commission's innovation agenda. In particular, ECPA condemns the removal of the current system whereby national authorities can grant provisional authorisations before substances are approved at EU level. This, it says, will increase the time it takes to get products to market. "We appreciate the efforts being made to improve decision-making procedures, but we believe that it is unrealistic to expect a decision that currently takes 4-6 years to be taken in two years in future," said ECPA's Director-General Dr. Friedhelm Schmider.

ECPA also strongly rejects "hazard-based cut-off criteria" for the safety assessment of substances, as it believes it is "based purely on political perception". Regulatory Affairs Director Euros Jones warned such an approach would "lead to the revocation of dozens of substances and consequently hundreds of safe uses". Instead, ECPA calls on European regulators "to maintain an authorisation system which is based on a scientific risk assessment of the product rather than on the potential hazard of substances alone".

It also calls on the Commission "to conduct a European assessment of the impact of the proposed cut-offs on the ability to protect crops and their impact on food safety, food prices and availability before the new regulation is adopted in order to allow legislators to make fully informed decisions". 

Séan Rickard, senior lecturer at the Cranfield School of Management, Bedfordshire, recently argued that "substantial increases in household food bills" would occur if the European Parliament succeeded in pushing through its "most restrictive scenario, which would remove 85% of current pesticides from the market". He predicted that EU cereal output would drop by about 100m tonnes, "leading to an effective doubling in grain prices". The price of potatoes and vegetable brassicas [a family of vegetables including broccoli, cabbage and spinach] would also double.

A recent study on the role of plant protection products in the future of European agriculture, conducted by Italian research institute Nomisma on behalf of Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science, also argued that overly-stringent EU rules on pesticides would reduce European agricultural self-sufficiency and trigger food price increases and job losses in the agri-food sector (EURACTIV 05/02/08).

Commenting on the Nomisma study, Syngenta, a global leader in agri-business, said the Commission's impact assessment and other assessments by various stakeholders had mainly "focused on the direct impact of the Commission proposal on the use of pesticides on the environment and on operators and consumers," while the Nomisma study's findings indicated that the proposal's "indirect impact could well be far greater than the direct influence".

According to Syngenta, "the challenge before us in the EU is to create a proportionate balance between hazard and risk in the assessment of plant protection products, which are essential tools for farmers to use in the sustainable production of high-quality food in Europe". "If we deny farmers these tools by failing to find such a balance, we run the risk of outsourcing our food supply beyond the EU's borders, where quality and sustainability standards may not be as stringent. This could result in unnecessarily high food prices for Europe's consumers and threaten jobs in the agri-food industry," the company warns.

Associations representing the European fresh and processed fruit and vegetable sector are calling on EU decision-makers "to take into account far-reaching implications on the availability of quality produce" should the Commission proposal become law. Whilst they say the sector is already taking up integrated methods and reducing chemical inputs, "a sufficient wide range of plant protection solutions remains crucial to ensure the success of these techniques". 

The Commission's pesticides strategy has come in for criticism by some environmental and health groups, which have expressed doubt its capacity to phase-out the most harmful products.

"The Commission's strategy is a visionless patchwork. It lacks enforceable targets or market-based instruments, like a pesticides tax, to achieve its ends," said John Hontelezsecretary-general of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a federation of environmental NGOs. Hontelez said genuinely sustainable use of pesticides had "to mean progressively reducing their use [and] making farmers less dependent on powerful chemicals producers. The worst pesticides, like those widely polluting our water […] should be banned immediately".

The environmental group also criticised what it says are "flawed zonal authorisations" because they "encourage companies to go 'country-shopping' to get authorisation and access to big markets" and "undermine governments' powers to reject pesticides in their national market." 

"Industry lobbyists are behaving like a posse of corporate cowboys, spreading wild rumours about the consequences of tougher legislation. In reality, the proposed regulation would give increased support to European agriculture while reducing the risks posed by hazardous pesticides. Few pesticides, if any, will actually be banned," said Elliott Cannell, Europe co-ordinator at the Pesticides Action Network, an environmental group.

The Collegium Ramazzini, a not-for-profit scientific society, notes that it is well-known that exposure to pesticides poses serious health risks, especially to vulnerable subgroups of the population such as pregnant women and children. It therefore "urges the EU to ban pesticides that are known or suspected of causing cancer or damage to the brain, the reproductive system and the immune system". 

  • 15 Sept. 2008: A European Parliament report on the health benefits of strict cut-off criteria published. 
  • 17 Dec. 2008: A compromise reached between Council and Parliament negotiators.
  • 13 Jan. 2009: Parliament voted to adopt the package in Plenary (see regulation and directive).
  • 2009: The Council still needs to formally adopt the package.
  • 2009: The regulation will enter into force and need to be applied as such. Pesticides that can be placed on the market under current legislation will remain available until their existing authorisation expires.
  • By early 2011: Member states must implement the Directive on sustainable use of pesticides. 

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