Euro MPs back pesticide bill

My last blog of 2008 commented on a deal being struck in the European Parliament that would pave the way towards new EU pesticide legislation. Another step towards adoption of the legislation has now been taken, with MEPs voting today to approve a new Regulation on the Placing on the Market of Plant Protection Products by 577 votes for and 61 votes against. Somewhat ironically for someone working at CABI, the vote came on the same day as the publication by CABI and the British Crop Protection Council of the 2009 edition of the UK Pesticide Guide. The new legislation is likely to mean the eventual disappearance of many of the products listed in this authoritative guide to pesticides and adjuvants for UK agriculture, horticulture, forestry and amenity use.

The draft law would ban substances that can cause cancer or that can harm human reproduction or hormones – at least 22 currently used products, according to BBC News. Nothing to object to in that, at first sight. But the UK's National Farmers Union has warned that the bill could wipe out the British carrot industry and seriously affect many other crops. And other critics question the science behind the legislation, in which plans include assessing products for protecting plants on the basis of "perceived hazard", instead of scientific evidence.

The new rules will outlaw substances that are potentially cancerous (carcinogenic), as well as ones that are harmful to human reproduction, to genes (genotoxic) or those that impact adversely on hormone production (endocrine-disrupting). A temporary definition for endocrine-disruptors has been criticised by lobby groups, including the HTA, NFU and CPA.

Irish MEP Avril Doyle said: "We are bringing EU legislation into international disrepute by a lack of good science." And the UK's Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said the regulations could hit agricultural production in the UK without producing a recognisable benefit to human health.

"We are being asked to agree to something here when nobody knows what the impact will be," he said.

"While we have managed to secure some improvements surrounding the use of certain pesticides, the UK does not support these proposals."

Conservative Robert Sturdy MEP said: "We must have safer pesticides that are used responsibly but banning products that are safe when used correctly will add to already volatile food prices and food shortages."

But environmentalists have welcomed the vote. German Green MEP Hiltrud Breyer said: "It is a win-win for industry because in the future there will be better and safer products."

There are some clauses in the legislation to allow farmers and crop protection companies more time to come up with alternatives to chemicals set to be banned. The draft regulation says that use of chemicals set to be outlawed is permitted for a limited period of five years if it 'can be proven that they are essential for crop survival.'

But some concerns remain. Many of the crops which would become more difficult to grow in the UK after the loss of the banned pesticides are among the most healthy for human nutrition, and industry lobbyists have claimed that our diet could become less nutritious if these healthy vegetables become significantly more expensive. Others fear that if food produced using the pesticides can still be imported into the EU, then all we are doing is outsourcing more of our food production to countries where pesticide use is governed by less safety legislation, putting European farmers out of business for no health benefits. It takes a long time and a great deal of money to bring new products from initial screening through to market, and particularly in an economic recession then agrochemical companies may be reluctant to invest in product development for some of the smaller niche crops whose production could be hit by this legislation.

For more information on the proposed legislation, see the EC Press release.

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