European agriculture ministers agree to ease proposed pesticide restrictions - setting up a clash with the European Parliament

A fight is brewing in Europe over tighter controls of pesticides - which crop protection companies are warning will cut crop yields and push up the price of food. European governments and the European Commission are heading for confrontation with the European Parliament later this year over proposed tough new pesticide restrictions.

After several failed attempts at previous meetings, the Council of Agricultural Ministers, with the support of the Commission, have now reached agreement on proposed new EU legislation on the authorisation of plant protection products. 

On the key issue of cut-off criteria - hazardous properties which will result in a substance being banned even if it can be applied safety - the ministers agreed to support the total prohibition of compounds proven to be carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic for reproduction (CMR). They also want to ban those products which are considered to have endocrine disruptive properties.

However, the criteria are far less restrictive that those originally proposed at the first reading of the proposed legislation in the European Parliament last October. As well as backing a ban on crop protection products which are CMR and endocrine-disrupting, the legislation included other criteria such as neurotoxic and immunotoxic effects. Nor should approved substances have harmful effects on ’residents or bystanders’ close to where pesticides are being applied, according to the Parliament.

Political agreement

The Council decided to relax the cut-off criteria, as some member states had considered them too restrictive - and secured agreement by a majority vote. The compromise text was strongly supported by the French, Italian and Czech ministers, but was opposed by several countries, including the UK and Ireland, who were seeking to relax the criteria still further.

The Council’s political agreement is due to be formalised into a common position by the autumn, so that the text of the legislation can be presented to the Parliament for a second reading in October. If Parliament continues to press for a tougher line, the two bodies will have to thrash out a compromise in a conciliation procedure.

’The text as approved by the Parliament in the first reading would have resulted in the prohibition of about 80 per cent of pesticides currently on the market, and would have left EU farmers with only two approved insecticides,’ says Euros Jones, director of  regulatory affairs at the European Crop Protection Association (EPCA), the Brussels-based body representing crop protection companies. ’The proposals just supported by the Council of Ministers will be less drastic, but will still lead to the removal of 25 per cent of crop protection substances from the market.

’We are opposed to cut-off criteria because they are exercised solely on the basis on the intrinsic properties of substances without taking into account the way they are used,’ he continues. The EPCA is particularly critical of the inclusion of endocrine disruptors as a cut-off criterion when at the moment there is no agreement within the EU or even outside Europe on their definition. ’How can something be banned for being endocrine disruptive without a clear definition of what the terms means?’ Jones asks.

But the Council’s decision has been welcomed by NGOs campaigning for the withdrawal of dangerous pesticides from the market. ’The creation of an EU-wide blacklist brings European legislation into line with the many high street supermarkets which already operate their own pesticide exclusion policies,’ says Elliott Cannell, co-ordinator of Pesticide Action Network Europe. 

’Yet the agreement isn’t all good,’ he adds. ’At the last minute politicians agreed a series of clauses which could keep some hazardous pesticides on the menu where alternative pest management strategies are deemed unavailable.’

Sean Milmo

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