Published online 16 January 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.32

News: Briefing

Europe set to crack down on pesticides

Controversial rules that could ban many agents are a step closer to approval.

Tractor spraying pesticidesFarmers fear they will have access to fewer pesticides if a new regulation package is passed.Punchstock

The European Union (EU) is due next month to finally approve controversial legislation to tighten up pesticide rules.

The legislation has been three years in the making, with a steady watering down of the rules in response to claims that they will lower crop yields and raise food prices. The European Parliament has now backed by an overwhelming majority a compromise package that will regulate the production and licensing of pesticides and incorporate a directive on their sustainable use.

Why was the new legislation needed?

Under the existing system, which was introduced in 1991, new pesticides are authorized by the European Commission. Each member state then decides whether to approve their use in their own countries. The new legislation aims make the approval of these compounds more uniform throughout Europe.

There was also growing public concern that the existing system lets through pesticides that endanger people's health. "We believe that in order to destroy fungi, insects and weeds, pesticides do not have to be so hazardous that they are carcinogenic, toxic to reproduction or have equally dangerous properties," says Elliott Cannell, co-ordinator at the Pesticide Action Network in London. "There must be safer alternatives."

What will happen under the new rules?

The new rules introduce criteria that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is accountable to the European Commission, will use to determine which substances are too hazardous to approve. Under these criteria, substances classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction; endocrine-disrupting; persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic; or very persistent and very bioaccumulative will, except in certain circumstances, be banned throughout Europe.

The EFSA will then draw up a list of approved pest-destroying ingredients that can used in crop-protection products.

Under the existing rules, pesticides are licensed for 10 years. Under the new regulations, once these licenses come up for renewal, the products will be allowed to stay on the market only if their active ingredients are on the approved list.

The directive promotes the use of non-chemical pest-control methods, bans aerial crop spraying without specific authorization and curbs the use of pesticides in areas such as parks and playgrounds. Member states will also have to adopt targets for reduced use of pesticides.

Why was the legislation so controversial?

The new licensing rules are based on the hazardous properties of substances within the product rather than, as at present, an assessment of the risk to health and the environment posed by their application.

The crop-protection industry, led by its EU trade association the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) in Brussels, claims that this approach is unscientific. The lobby group initially said that the new rules would lead to the withdrawal of so many pesticides that crop yields will fall drastically, triggering big rises in food prices.

Sean Rickard, a senior lecturer at the Cranfield School of Management, Bedfordshire, England, predicted that, as a result of the legislation set out in an earlier draft, EU grain prices would double along with the price of potatoes and brassicas like spinach and cabbage.

A major sticking point during the negotiations over a compromise package was the concept of endocrine disruption, which was not defined in the initial draft. The negotiators have opted to temporarily define it as products that show some evidence of carcinogenicity and toxicity for reproduction. However, the European Commission must come up with a permanent and specific definition of the term within four years.

What do pesticides producers think of it now?

Fears over yields and prices have lessened as the proposed legislation has been watered down. The Swedish Chemicals Agency (KEMI) estimates that the compromise package will result in just 23 existing substances being banned, or around 5% of the 500 currently approved. Furthermore, most of these would not be excluded from the market until their approvals come up for renewal.

The ECPA had been fiercely opposed to the licensing rules but now believes that it can live with the legislation. "We don't like the legislation, particularly the regulation on approvals, but the compromise is now the best of a bad job," says Euros Jones, the ECPA's director of regulatory affairs. "If there had to be more negotiations over the legislation we could end up with something even worse."

What happens next?

The licensing regulation and the new directive on sustainable use will almost certainly be approved next month by the Council of Ministers, representing the governments of the EU's 27 member states. The regulation would then start to be implemented next year while the directive would have to be incorporated into the national laws of all member states by 2011. Individual member states will then have to adopt National Action Plans to reduce the risks of pesticides and to eliminate their use.

The list of approved substances will have to be drawn up by EFSA on the basis of safety and other data provided mainly by the crop producers.

Environmental groups and many members of the European Parliament believe that the new regulation will lead to the eventual banning of many substances that are in use today. They expect, for example, that the fungicide carbendazim — classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction — as well as metconazole and tebuconazole, also fungicides considered to be endocrine disrupting, will be withdrawn. Some worry that public concerns will drive decisions, but the ECPA says this will not necessarily be the case.

"Once we enter the implementation phase of the process, we intend to make sure that the path that is followed is based on fact, not fear," says Friedhelm Schmider, director-general of the ECPA. 

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