DEFRA’s bid to overturn a landmark legal case on the use of pesticides hangs in the balance after appeal court judges failed to reach a decision at the end of a four-day hearing.
The judges will decide in the coming weeks whether to uphold a High Court ruling made last autumn that said government policy did not protect rural residents from exposure to pesticides.
The case was then brought in November 2008 by environmental campaigner Georgina Downs who claimed she had suffered ill health because of pesticide exposure.
High Court judge, Mr Justice Collins, ruled that DEFRA was not doing enough to assess the potential for harmful effects on human health before authorising new pesticides for use on UK farms.
But this week DEFRA fought to have the decision reversed.
During the hearing DEFRA QC Robert Jay underlined the case’s importance to the arable farming industry.
Mr Jay said that if Miss Downs ultimately won her case government pesticide policy would be fundamentally undermined and might even grind to a halt.
He told the court that there was no solid evidence of a link between crop spraying and damage to human health and fears that there may be, were simply anecdotal.
And he described Miss Downs’ challenge as generic for not picking out any individual pesticide for criticism.
DEFRA’s all-but insurmountable practical difficulties were increased by Mr Justice Collins’ failure to give any steer on what needed to be done to comply with the law, Mr Jay added.
The methods DEFRA used for assessing the safety of pesticides were the most protective available in line with current scientific knowledge and, by his ruling, the judge had effectively second-guessed the experts, he concluded.
However, Michael Fordham QC, for Miss Downs, said one of the most fundamental flaws in DEFRA’s risk assessment policy is that it is targeted at the health impact on farmers and other pesticide users, rather than rural residents or bystanders.
He said that EU law demanded that approval should not be given to any pesticide that might harm human health.
EU law, he said, was designed to give individuals absolute protection against potentially damaging pesticides, but that had been unlawfully watered down by DEFRA.