14 October 2008 00:00 [Source: ICB]
EU proposals to tighten rules on pesticides could lead to many being banned, with dire consequences for agriculture, says the European Crop Protection Association
IT MAY not be widely known, but legislation is being written in Brussels, Belgium, that some experts believe could profoundly affect European agriculture, where the food originates, and even how much it costs.
The EU is working on legislation (a revision of the existing Directive 91/414/EEC) that would limit the availability of pesticides in European markets. Substantial changes proposed to ingredients allowed in the making of such products are ringing alarm bells in the agrochemical industry. Should the legislation be approved, the sale of up to 85% of pesticides used in agriculture today would be banned.
Industry and farmers fear the impact of the proposed regulation on the European agrifood sector and beyond. European pesticide manufacturing companies employ more than 30,000 people, with an estimated additional 20,000 people employed in distribution and support of the industry.
The ban on some of the main components of fungicides, herbicides and insecticides will leave them with few alternatives to continue raising affordable and high-quality crops to meet demand for fresh fruit and vegetables. Recent studies indicate that yields will fall dramatically should the new legislation become law.
productivity to decline?xml:namespace>A report by UK environmental consultancy ADAS states that the UK may face a 25% reduction in the production of wheat, potatoes and green vegetables. This is in line with the country's Pesticide Safety Directorate assessment that concludes this legislation could mean the end of the UK's conventional agriculture.
Earlier this year, the independent Italian research institute Nomisma reached similar conclusions. It warned that under the same circumstances the yields of wheat, potatoes, cereals and wine grapes in Europe could decrease by 29%, 33%, 20% and 10% respectively by 2020.
Studies showing trace levels of pesticides in foods have increased the level of controversy surrounding the products in the public's perception. However, each country already has quality control mechanisms in place that assure the quality of fruit and vegetables. Even before changes in the regulation are taken into account, Europe already has extremely stringenthealth and quality standards for food.
failure to evaluate?
Experts from the industry and beyond believe that supporters of the old directive's reform have, while evaluating the potential effects of pesticides, failed to adequately consider the risks posed by a move to pesticide-free farming, and hold an unrealistic view of crop protection practices.
The European Petrochemical Association (EPCA) says that thanks to innovation and development, the industry has reached a point where pesticides are safe. They are also specific, acting only against a particular pest or disease, and short-lived, breaking down into harmless chemical components once they have achieved the desired effect.
"On average, it takes nine years for a pesticide to be developed, tested and assessed by the industry, before it receives market approval by national authorities. Products are approved only if they are effective, can be applied safely and do not have any unacceptable side effects on humans and the environment," explains Euros Jones, regulatory affairs director of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA).
The group argues that the basis on which the proposed "cut-off" criteria will ban an active ingredient is wrong: the fact that an active ingredient contains a hazardous substance does not indicate that the product is unsafe, as long as farmers follow the treatment, storage and disposal recommendations. Whether or not a substance is safe depends not just on its hazard, but on how it is used - and that only hazard and use combined can determine risk.
"Cars are big, heavy and travel fast - and therefore inherently present a hazard to pedestrians. The answer is not to ban cars, but to regulate how they are used through speed limits, traffic systems, safety barriers and so on," adds Jones.
The ECPA explains that if cut-off criteria are introduced, they should be based on a scientific risk assessment of the product rather than only on the potential hazard of components. "To know if products are safe, we need to consider all the risks under realistic conditions of use and ensure that the future decision will be based on up-to-date scientific knowledge and not on assumptions," says Jones.
Regardless of the use of pesticides, 20-40% of all the food cultivated in Europe is lost every year. Products that eradicate pests, fungi and other bacteria are therefore essential for today's modern agriculture to produce enough good-quality food to meet demand.
The ECPA believes that there are available alternatives without having to reduce the choice of products on the market. As an example, some Mediterranean farmers are already implementing "Integrated Pest Management" techniques that combine biological control methods, such as pheromone attractants, to lure pests away from crops, with the use of pesticides.
What is at stake?
The ban of most pesticides currently used today will undoubtedly have more ramifications than just a reduction in annual agricultural production. There is a fear that the proposed legislation may lead farmers to experiment with less expensive imported products from countries where regulations are not so strictly enforced. At the same time, agrochemical manufacturers raise the specter of illegal imports of pesticides that do not comply with even today's criteria.
The industry reports that losses in active ingredients will also hinder research and development, a fundamental pillar to the sustainability of the industry in the long term. "For every active substance that enters the market, there are 139,000 that do not make it. Developing new active ingredients is a lengthy, costly and labor-intensive process. Ten years ago we had more than 900 substances available today we have less than 450. Innovation can fill the gaps, but doesn't happen overnight," warns Jones.
Farmers have also raised concerns about the environmental consequences that using only the few remaining pesticides may have on plants and the environment. Pests may develop resistance to certain pesticides that would then require increasing the dosage of the only available ones.
Ultimately, the ban is likely to affect food prices, and make it more difficult for consumers to buy high-quality, healthy foods. "We are so worried about the details that we are missing the big picture," notes Jones.
A balanced solution
Policymakers have a tough decision on their hands: how to find a solution that will not jeopardize the future of farming in Europe but that will protect consumers from health and environmental hazards.
POTENTIAL IMPACT ON WINTER RAPESEED
|Treatments||Active ingredients||Parliament vote would mean|
|Herbicides||Metazachlor & Quinmerac||Banned|
|Trifluralin||Being phased out|
|Propaquizafop||Banned after five years|
|Fluazifop-p-butyl||Banned after five years|
|Molluscicides||Metaldehyde||Banned after five years|
POTENTIAL IMPACT ON WINTER WHEAT
|Treatments||Active ingredients||Parliament vote would mean|
|Herbicides||Diflufenican & Flufenacet||Banned|
|Florasulam||Banned after five years|
|Epoxiconazole & Metrafenone||Banned|
Friedhelm Schmider is ECPA director general. He holds a PhD in agriculture. Before assuming his current appointment in 2002, he was the director of global regulatory affairs for German chemical major BASF.
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