New threat to pesticides comes from Water Framework Directive

Drastic measures including pesticide bans that could seriously undermine arable farming profitability may have to be introduced to comply with European water legislation.

At this stage the move is described as a last resort.

But it could become necessary under the Water Framework Directive if certain pesticides are continually found to be damaging water quality.

“A direct ban is quite low down on the list of measures the Environment Agency appears to be considering, which is encouraging,” Keith Norman, technical director of Velcourt, said after joining Farmers Weekly at a fact-finding meeting with the Environment Agency.

“But the threat is abuse pesticides and you will lose them.”

Initially the EA is keen to employ a range of approaches, including voluntary initiatives and incentivised measures to help it meet the aims of the Water Framework Directive.

“A lot will be in the farmers’ hands and can be dealt with through voluntary initiatives to improve practises,” said Pete Redfern, policy manager for agriculture and soils at the Environment Agency.

But regulatory sticks are also available. These include the possibility of creating water protection zones, a concept that allows regulators to designate areas for special measures where those softer options are shown to be failing, “It is a fall-back position for where things aren’t improving – an action of last resort.”

For pesticides that could mean a ban on using pesticides in those areas, or changes to its use conditions, for example, his colleague Jo Kennedy, the EA’s policy adviser on pesticides, said. Those options could also be introduced voluntarily, but if there was a refusal to adopt, the water protection zone approach could be used to enforce them, she explained.

“But the Environment Agency isn’t going to go around banning pesticides,” she stressed. “For a start we don’t have the authority to do so. The directive will, however, place more scrutiny on certain pesticides, and we will be identifying where there is non-compliance and implementing cost-effective measures to bring about change.”

The Water Framework Directive would assess pesticides affects on water quality in surface, ground and drinking water, she explained.

For rivers and other surface waters, good quality meant looking at range of ecological indicators such as macrophytes, invertebrates and fish. “But it also means good chemical status. In the directive environmental quality standards have been set with aquatic life in mind. These are concentration limits below which we wouldn’t expect to see any impact on aquatic life.”

Certain substances designated by the EU as priority substances and priority hazardous substances have had environmental quality standards set at a European level. Only one pesticide, chlorpyrifos – an insecticide used to control wheat bulb fly and orange wheat blossom midge – is currently used in the UK.

However, each member state could also set environmental quality standards, within EU guidelines, for pesticides that are specific pollutants (see table) in water bodies, Dr Kennedy said. “These are determined on the ecological properties of the product and quantities used within individual member states.”

Pesticide pollution reduction plans had been developed for all pesticides identified by the EU as priority substances and priority hazardous substances and for the six pesticides identified as specific pollutants in the UK, she said. These took into account use patterns, point source emissions and compliance information, and aimed to develop future measures to ensure there was no deterioration in levels and/or to achieve compliance with environmental quality standards.

Existing data from 2002-2006 surface water monitoring showed no compliance issues with chlorpyrifos, dimethoate and linuron, minimal failures with 2,4-D and mecoprop, but around 40 failures with cypermethrin and 10 for diazinon, she said.

However, most of those appeared to be due to use of those actives in sheep dips. “The VMD suspended its use in sheep dips in 2006 because it was causing too much impact in downstream watercourses,” Dr Kennedy noted. “Since then pollution instances have dropped off dramatically.”

It illustrates some of the flexibility the Environment Agency wants within the Water Framework Directive, where restrictions can be put in place for specific activities, if necessary, but not across the board. “We don’t want to inflict pain unnecessarily,” she said.

But to do that pesticide manufacturers and regulators, such as the Pesticides Safety Directorate might have to adopt a more flexible approach to marketing and approvals, she added.

A further set of substances are candidates for future action – again split between those identified at a European level and by UK authorities. They include very popular actives glyphosate, chlorothalonil, pendimethalin and the slug killer methiocarb. But a long consultation process had to be undertaken before they were designated as priority substances, Dr Kennedy stressed.

In groundwaters analysis of previous data suggested a lot of compliance issues would have been mainly with pesticides that had now been banned, she said. “Substances like atrazine, simazine and diuron have all gone.”

A bigger issue for meeting good water status in groundwaters was that they had to comply with article seven of the directive, which focused on drinking water, she said.

To comply with article seven each groundwater body and the 205 surface water bodies, which have also been designated drinking water protected areas, have to avoid having increasing concentrations of pesticides detected within them and not breach the drinking water standard for pesticides of 1 part per billion, she explained.

“There are a number of pesticides to keep an eye on with drinking water risk. They tend to be ones that are difficult to treat or remove from water and are widely used. On the radar at the moment are propyzamide, chlorotoluron and metaldehyde.”

While retrospective compliance assessments were ongoing to find out the likely scale of any problems Dr Kennedy expected most compliance failures under the drinking water legislation.

Where water bodies fail because of pesticides – and many wouldn’t, Dr Kennedy pointed out – a range of measures could be introduced. “In general we will seek voluntary measures through catchment sensitive farming, but we could also look at reducing doses, restricting when pesticides can be sprayed, and catchment specific measures, such as buffer zones and biobeds.”

Other mechanisms that could be used included label changes through manufacturers, fiscal changes via environment stewardship and finally regulatory – the compulsory implementation through water protection zone legislation, she concluded.

Cereals 2009

Velcourt’s ‘What’s new in Arable farming?’ demonstration area at Cereals 2009 would have a visual display of not only the potential product losses resulting from the recently agreed new EU pesticides approvals legislation, but also the products that the water framework directive may affect, Mr Norman said.

“It is a case of abuse them or we will lose them. If we don’t get our act together then they could go, if all measures fail.”

At risk

  • Surface water priority substances

  • EU – chlorpyrifos

  • UK – 2,4-D, cypermethrin, diazinon, dimethoate, linuron, mecoprop

  • Future priority substances?

  • EU – AMPA, bentazone, glyphosate, mecoprop, quinoxyfen

  • UK – carbendazim, chlorothalonil, glyphosate, methiocarb, pendimethalin

  • Drinking water

  • Propyzamide, chlorotoluron, metaldehyde 

Useful links

European Commission WFD page (

WFD information centre (

Environment Agency WFD page (

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