EU review approves pesticides used in organic farming based on incomplete data, sparking claims of double standards

A number of pesticides in common use today, including several of those that are currently allowed in organic farming, will soon be banned under new rules in the EU. 

Following a decade-long review of active substances that farmers are allowed to use on their crops, the European Commission is set to ban those that don’t meet its strict requirements for toxicology and environmental safety. EU member states will then have to decide which of the approved chemicals can be used within their own countries.

However, the process has thrown up an anomaly - several agents used in organic farming have made the cut, despite the fact that not all the necessary data were available. These include chemicals that are used to prevent mould, particularly in potatoes and grapes, and which are therefore essential in the production of organic wine. These fungicidal chemicals include several copper salts and Bordeaux mixture, a combination of copper sulfate and calcium hydroxide. 

’The EU has given approval to copper salts on the basis of a dossier that I would consider to be pretty light in some areas, and where there are gaps in the data,’ says Colin Ruscoe, chairman of the British Crop Production Council. The main problem with copper is environmental - it persists in the soil and can damage beneficial organisms. ’It seems unlikely to me that copper or copper-based compounds would pass the persistence requirements if the data were available,’ he says. ’There are areas where livestock can’t be fed on the land because it is so heavily contaminated through copper use over generations.’

According to the Soil Association, the impacts of copper use are currently being investigated by an EU taskforce, which will file further studies by 2011. After this, member states will be able to approve measures on a national level. ’The amount of copper that organic farmers use is tiny compared to the amount used in farming generally, where it can be routinely applied as a soil conditioner in copper-deficient soil,’ says Soil Association policy campaigner Emma Hockridge. ’Less than 0.4 per cent of the total copper applied to soils in England and Wales each year is used by organic farmers.’

Ruscoe’s main gripe isn’t copper itself, however - it’s the fact that it has been allowed through without all the required data. ’Why, then, is the Commission being so hard on other pesticides and putting in place cut-off criteria for hazard-based end effects, without allowing a compound go through to proper risk assessment?’ he says. ’It looks like bad science, and smacks of double standards.’

Sarah Houlton