MEPs back toxic pesticide ban despite industry pressure

06.11.08 @ 09:24

  1. By Leigh Phillips

BRUSSELS - In the face of strong opposition from agribusiness and industry, MEPs have backed a ban on toxic pesticides.

  • The pesticide industry has attacked MEPs as ideologically driven (Photo: wikipedia)

On Wednesday (5 November) deputies in the European Parliament's environment committee voted on two legislative proposals from the commission, one on approval of pesticides and the other aiming to reduce their use across the EU.

The committee backed 39 to 20, with six abstentions, a cross-party compromise that would see a list of chemical ingredients - or 'active substances' - that are approved drawn up at the EU level.

Certain highly toxic substances - those that cause cancer, are toxic to reproduction or negatively affect the hormonal, nervous or immune systems - are to be banned where they pose a significant risk.

Nevertheless, even these substances may be used in cases of serious danger to plant health.

In an earlier version of the legislation, such products were to be replaced where safer alternatives already exist within five years. MEPs however cut this grace period to two years.

MEPs also rejected the idea of splitting the EU into three different pesticide-licensing zones - north, centre and south - a plan agreed to by the commission and the Council. The environment committee deputies instead want a single zone covering the whole of the EU.

Legislation on the reduction of pesticide use was approved with a substantial majority - 58 to three, with two abstentions.

The key change - introduced by MEPs to the second bill as an amendment - is requiring that national action plans to reduce pesticide use include quantitative targets. For particularly dangerous substances, their use must be cut in half.

Farmers' groups and pesticide manufacturers have argued that quantitative targets are arbitrary, as pesticides are not used uniformly, but "respond[ing] to real, local pest management needs," according to the European Crop Protection Association - the trade body lobbying on behalf of the pesticide industry.

Additionally, MEPs voted to ban most crop spraying by aeroplanes, with some exceptions, and insisted on 'buffer zones' protecting areas around water courses and sources of drinking water. Member states however would prefer not to talk of 'buffer zones' but rather just that 'appropriate measures' be taken to prevent contamination of water.

The deputies also voted for 'substantial no-spray zones' to be established near playgrounds, hospitals and public parks.

Pesticides found in food

The pesticide industry is not at all happy with the vote, arguing that committee members are ideologically driven and not paying attention to what science says. The industry claims that the bills will lead to an "unnecessary ban on a number of products that have been shown to meet high safety standards and are currently being used safely by European farmers."

"Simply because a substance has hazardous properties does not mean it cannot be used safely, a fact that is proven daily in every sector, including medicine and transport," said ECPA's director-general Friedhelm Schmider, adding the legislation "will also drive up food prices and downgrade Europe's quality of life."

Green MEP Caroline Lucas however says it is the businessmen who are not paying attention to science.

"The concern lies not just with the behaviour of individual chemicals, but also how they react in combination with each other," she said.

A few weeks ago, she added, the EU's latest food monitoring report revealed that a record level of pesticides are being found in food items sold in the EU, with almost half of all fruit, vegetables and cereals containing pesticide residues, and five percent of them at concentrations above maximum legal limits.

"This is the highest ever level of pesticide contamination recorded in the EU, and represents an increase of around 20 percent over the past five years alone."

The committee was voting on two second-reading recommendations. Negotiations will take place with Council on a number of points before a vote of the whole parliament in December or January.