Food price security at risk from pesticide proposals

World food production, according to UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon at the UN summit in Rome earlier this month, will have to rise by 50% by 2030 to cope with demand.

Food costs have already reached a 30-year high in real terms, causing riots in several countries.

It is against that background the EU is trying to update its pesticide approvals legislation. But the proposals’ impact on food price, security and the whole future of EU agriculture appear worryingly unacknowledged in most of Europe.

Only the UK, and possibly Ireland, seem opposed to the current proposals, in which the European Commission suggests changing the current approvals process from a risk-based system to a hazard-based process.

Effectively that means various “cut-off” criteria will be used to automatically de-register or non-approve products if they exceed certain human health or environmental red flags. Previously those hazards would have been judged on the risk of actual harm being caused in the course of the product being used as recommended.

A second proposal suggests selecting products that have significantly lower ratings for approval criteria such as acceptable daily intake and operator exposure levels. These products would be “candidates for substitution” and if suitable alternatives were identified would then be de-registered, too.

The Commission’s proposals were then amended by the European Parliament, which added further hazard cut-offs and decided that instead of leaving the option of continuing to approve candidates for substitution until suitable alternatives could be found, that these products should be registered for a five-year period only. After that, regardless of alternatives they would be de-registered.

Almost unbelievably neither the Commission nor the Parliament looked at the impact of cut-off criteria or candidates for substitution on future yields or food prices.

So the UK’s Pesticide Safety Directorate did its own objective assessment, and came out with some startling headline figures and conclusions last month.

Under the Commission’s proposals 5-10% of insecticides would be lost, 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 almost all triazole fungicides, depending on how 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 almost all insecticides, strobilurin fungicides, chlorothalonil, mesosulfuron-methyl (as in Atlantis), and metazachlor. Indeed it is probably easier to write a list of what would be left.

As PSD concludes: “If the full potential impact of the current Parliament proposals were realised, conventional commercial agriculture in the UK and much of the EU as it is currently practised would not be achievable, with major impacts on crop yield and food quality.”

Those impacts have been quantified in an ADAS report commissioned by the European Crop Protection Association in wheat, potatoes (see charts) and brassica field vegetables.

In wheat the key impact from the Commission’s exclusion proposals is the loss of triazole fungicides. ADAS estimates loss in disease control would reduce production by 20%. Losses through weeds would cost 7% in yield. The full impact would be a 26% cut in production.

All key grassweed herbicides would be lost with the full Parliament proposals, and only very limited broad-leaved weed control would be possible. Production would also have to be done without fungicides or insecticides. All told, yields would reduce by 62%, ADAS says.

The study suggests a similar story for potatoes. Losing linuron, mancozeb and systemic blight fungicides under the Commission’s proposals would ultimately result in about 22% yield loss.

Again with the Parliament’s proposals chemical control of weeds, diseases and pests would effectively be impossible. Yield impacts would be about 53%.

Gross margins (see table) would typically be reduced by at least 40% for each crop by the Commission and 100% plus by the Parliament overall. To maintain current gross margins would require price increases of between 25% (Commission) and 100% (Parliament) for the crops, ADAS says.

You would think with these startling statistics this proposal would have been buried long ago, or at least there would be significant opposition within the EU. Not a bit of it. In fact, at the time of writing, it appears the UK is unlikely to garner enough support to even be able to use a blocking minority.

It leaves our government with a tricky decision to make: Vote against and we effectively disqualify ourselves from the remaining discussions or vote for something the analysis suggests could have massive negative impact, so we can still have an influence.

It is why the whole food chain in the UK has been working hard in the past few weeks to lobby both our political leaders and those in other countries, through other EU food chain organisations, to make this legislation an agenda item at European leader level at their meeting in the past few days (18-19 June).

If they succeeded, and EU leaders become aware of its potential impact on food prices, then common sense might prevail and a full impact assessment across the whole of Europe might be carried out. Or else we might be waking up in a few years’ time to a very different arable production landscape.