What, no sprouts?

I hate Brussels sprouts. There, I've said it. The vegetable that has become synonymous with the British Christmas dinner (presumably because in the days before global trade and improved storage made every type of food available throughout the year, it was one of the few vegetables in season in December) is to me one maliciously designed to ruin that traditional turkey dinner. So I have to admit, when a press release from the National Farmers Union (NFU) claiming that new EU pesticides legislation threatened sprout growing in the UK hit my in-box, my initial thought was 'Yippee'.

But is that response misguided? Because not only do some strange people (including one of my colleagues I was discussing the subject with a few minutes ago) actually like sprouts, but growing them is an important part of the livelihood of many farmers. And of course it's not just in sprouts where the banning of many widely used chemicals will have an impact. Farmers and crop scientists say that without many of the currently used pesticides, yields will drop and food prices rise – not what we want as a recession bites and many people are losing their jobs and incomes.

The issue is stricter controls on pesticides in the EU, after European Parliament negotiators reached a deal with the 27 EU member states. The legislation will ban chemicals that can trigger cancer or cause neural, hormonal or genetic damage. An impact assessment by the Pesticides Safety Directorate suggests that 23 insecticides could be banned, together with several key herbicides and fungicides. British farmers claim that the controls would make cultivation of crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and onions, as well as Brussels sprouts, uncompetitive in the UK.

The full parliament is expected to vote on the package in January, after which it goes to EU leaders for final approval.

If adopted, the legislation will let member states license pesticides at national level or through mutual recognition. The new rules are meant to replace the EU's 1991 pesticides legislation.

The EU is to be divided into three zones – north, centre and south – with compulsory mutual recognition within each zone as the basic rule. Currently pesticide approvals are handled by each individual country. Individual countries will still be able to ban a pesticide because of specific environmental or agricultural circumstances.

The EU says it wants "to stimulate the production of more effective pesticides to the benefit of farmers and the chemicals industry, while improving environmental and health protection".

Antonia Mockin, from the European Commission, said: "These are the substances that are most dangerous to human health, that cause cancer, that disrupt the body's internal systems – reproductive and otherwise." And environmental groups such as the Pesticides Action Network Europe have welcomed the agreement.

But not all scientists are convinced that the science behind the legislation is sound, and there are worries about the impact on food production. An assessment by the UK's Pesticides Safety Directorate says that between 14% and 23% of approved products are likey to go if legislation is approved, including most pyrethroid insecticides and the slug killer methiocarb, assessed as potentially neurotoxic. And under a ban of endocrine-disrupting compounds, azole products currently used to fight septoria in cereals would be lost, as would mancozeb, a fungicide used to combat potato blight.

A petition to the European parliament on 8 December signed by 72 scientists said that fewer active ingredients would inevitably lead to problems, as pests that were regularly treated with just a single product would develop resistance

"European agriculture is not in a position to be losing more active ingredients," said Prof John Lucas, head of plant pathology at Rothamsted Research, who delivered the petition. "We fear that we will not be able to replace the substances banned at the speed that policymakers believe.

"The [pesticide] industry is only able to launch about five new active ingredients per year. This is 10 times less than the rate at which they have been removed from the market.

"Pests develop resistance faster than the industry finds solutions. European farmers are already facing resistance problems as a result of a limited crop protection portfolio."

In a letter to David Kidney MP dated December 3, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that the proposed legislation could damage agriculture and food production without securing any meaningful benefits for health or the environment.

Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of COPA-COGECA, which represents European farmers, 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 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.

More detail and background on the proposed legislation is available from Euractiv here. An impact assessment for UK agriculture is available from the Pesticides Safety Directorate. And for those of you with access to CAB Abstracts, there is a wealth of information to enable you to judge the science for yourself. For example, a search for 'pesticides and endocrine and (disrupting or disruption)' produces over 200 bibliographic records, while there are over 800 records on pesticides and neurotoxicity.

Meanwhile, for those of you that like them – enjoy your Christmas sprouts!

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