Proposed EU pesticide legislation could remove key products from the market. Mike Abram explains the background, what the current position is, and what happens next.

Q Why could pesticides be removed from market?

A It is all part of the EU’s plans to modernise pesticide laws. There are two main pillars to its “Thematic Strategy for Pesticides” – one governing how pesticides are approved, the other how they are used. Products could be withdrawn as a result of the proposals governing approvals.

Q Why?

A The proposal updates an existing piece of EU legislation – Directive 91/414/EEC. This Directive governs the placing of pesticides on to the market, and requires each active ingredient and product to go through a comprehensive risk assessment before being approved.

A review by the EU Commission in 2001 decided 91/414 could be improved and concluded it needed reforming to reinforce the high level of protection of human health and the environment. The reforms would also reduce repetitive animal testing and improve competition among manufacturers to the benefit of farmers.

Q What reforms have been proposed?

A The contentious one is the proposal to introduce specific hazard criteria on which to automatically exclude products. It means that any product that exceeds certain human health or environmental red flags, for example if an ingredient is carcinogenic, will be de-registered or non-approved. The idea is to remove the most hazardous pesticides, make the system simpler, more transparent and allow approval decisions to be made more quickly.

Q How does this differ from the current legislation?

A Currently, products are assessed on the risks of actual exposure to an active ingredient rather than the active’s inherent hazards. It means if the manufacturer can prove a product will be safe to use as directed it can be approved, even if the active ingredient might be hazardous. The new proposals would mean the product is automatically not approved because it contains that hazard, regardless of whether it is dangerous when used as directed.

Q What else has been proposed by the commission?

A A second proposal is to select products that have significantly lower ratings than the majority for criteria such as acceptable daily intake and operator exposure limits. These products would be “candidates for substitution” and if suitable alternatives were identified would then be de-registered too.

Q What happened next?

A In October 2007 the European parliament voted on the proposal during its first reading. The MEPs voted to include even tougher restrictions than the commission had originally proposed, adding extra hazard criteria. They also agreed to allow only a five-year period for alternative products for the candidates for substitution to be identified, after which those products would be de-registered regardless whether a replacement had been found.

Q How many products could this affect?

A According to the UK’s Pesticides Safety Directorate, which has done its own impact assessment, the commission’s proposals could remove 5-10% of insecticides, 5-12% of herbicides and 7-35% of fungicides. A range was given because of some grey areas regarding how certain hazard criteria would ultimately be defined.

Examples of key products that could be lost include dimethoate, pendimethalin and virtually all triazole fungicides, depending on how one of the hazard criteria, endocrine disruption, is defined.

Using the parliament’s exclusion criteria, 66% of UK insecticides would be de-registered, 35-49% of fungicides and 27-33% herbicides. Once the five-year period for approval of candidates for substitution runs out those figures jump to 92%, 80% and 91% respectively.

Among the many casualties would be virtually all insecticides, strobilurin fungicides, chlorothalonil, mesosulfuron-methyl (as in Atlantis), and metazachlor. It is probably easier to write a list of what would be left.

Q Surely EU agricultural ministers would be against this?

A Unfortunately not. Other than the UK, Ireland, Hungary and Romania, who all abstained at the vote in June, the other 23 countries voted through a Slovenian compromise to the original commission proposals with only minor changes.

Q Were any of those amendments significant?

A The compromise does allow a limited derogation for substances that breach some of the hazard criteria. But the commission has indicated it would expect it to be used only exceptionally.

Q If all these products were banned wouldn’t that cut production?

A According to an ADAS study based on the PSD impact assessment, yes. In wheat it calculated the commission’s proposals could cut yields by 26%, potato yields by 22% and brassica vegetables by 25% in the UK.

Q What about the rest of Europe?

A Almost unbelievably, the EU hasn’t done an impact assessment on how the proposals would affect yields or food prices across the EU as a whole. It did do an initial impact assessment in 2006, but this appears to be before the hazard criteria had been proposed, and it did not look at the effect on farmers and food production.

Some other individual countries are rumoured to have done their own impact assessments, but none have been published yet.

Q What happens next?

A The revised text agreed by the EU agriculture ministers in June goes back to the European parliament for second reading in October. The lead environment committee of MEPs will first amend the proposals as it sees fit before all the MEPs vote on the final report, probably in December or January. There may then be a series of “conciliation” meetings between the parliament, the commission and the council to agree a final text.

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