'Emotional' legislation short on science

Scientists, farmers, governments and the agrochemicals industry have united in their condemnation of a new EU law to control the use of pesticides. Critics have slammed the law as emotionally rather than scientifically motivated, after the legislation was passed by the European Parliament on 13 January without any scientific assessment of its potential impact on agriculture and food production.

The legislation changes the safety criteria that pesticide formulations must satisfy to be approved for use - leading to speculation that up to 15 per cent of currently available pesticides could be banned outright, with potentially serious affects on agriculture and food production. Under the new rules, scientific risk assessments which take account of exposure levels and control measures will be replaced by hazard-based cut-off criteria.

Supporters claim that the new, hazard-based approach will protect the public from harmful effects of exposure to chemical pesticides and their residues. But Julian Little, public & government affairs manager for Bayer CropScience and chair of communications for the UK Crop Protection Association, explains why this approach is fundamentally flawed: ’Pesticides are by their nature biologically active, and therefore if you go out looking for hazards associated with them, chances are you’ll find one.’ By ignoring such things as safe working practices and even the dosage involved, the new rules will disregard products which have been proven safe over years of use and by ’a regulatory system which is second to none in the world’, he claims.

The lack of an official impact assessment has worried the governments of several member states, including the UK, Spain, Ireland and Hungary. The UK government’s pesticide safety directorate’s latest report puts forward three possible scenarios based on a range of interpretations of the hazard-based cut-off criteria, all leading to significant yield losses in a range of food crops, with ’no meaningful benefits to public health protection beyond those already provided by the existing risk assessment arrangements’. The lack of an EU impact assessment was criticised by Hilary Benn, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, at the Oxford Farmers’ Conference in December. ’Closing your eyes and crossing your fingers is not a good way to take decisions. We need [analysis] based on evidence and a clear understanding of the impact,’ he said.

Disruptive decision

The legislation also lacks any meaningful description of the criteria under which products will be banned, particularly regarding endocrine disruptors (compounds which interfere with the body’s hormone signalling system), say scientists. Paul Leonard, an entomologist at BASF crop protection, explains that there is currently no agreed definition of what constitutes harmful endocrine disruption. Thanks to extensive lobbying, the legislation now recognises this and stipulates that firm scientific criteria on the meaning of endocrine disruption are required within four years. 

However, the Parliament insisted on an interim definition based on substances classified as category three carcinogenic and toxic to reproduction (C3+R3). ’By definition, these are the products that have the most tentative association with endocrine disruption, but the scare campaigns have associated them with gross endocrine effects on the human population,’ says Leonard. ’At a certain stage in an in  vitro study, at very high concentration, some effects were observed, and that’s why they’re category three. The link between that and human reproduction has never been made, and if it had been [the products] would be banned already. There is no logic behind the use of C3+R3, and it is ridiculous that we have European legislation based on a total lack of scientific rationale.’

Uncertain impact

There will undoubtedly be some impact on producers of pesticides across Europe, but given the lack of clarity in the legislation, the ultimate effects are impossible to quantify. It will take nearly two years for the legislation to become law, and initially will only affect products as they are introduced or come up for renewal of approval, which takes place every 10 years.

It has been suggested that removing old products from the market will lead to increased innovation from agribusiness, bringing in new products with different modes of action. This, says John Lucas, head of plant pathology and microbiology at Rothamsted Research, is easier said than done. He points out that for septoria, the principal fungal disease in wheat, only two new modes of action have been discovered in the last 20 years and one of those, the strobilurins, became useless within three years due to resistance. ’We’re really dependant on [triazole-type fungicides] which first came onto the market 25 years ago. Triazoles make a major contribution to increased yields and increased quality - they’d be very difficult to replace quickly if we lost them.

Phillip Broadwith

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