Toxic pesticides banned in Europe
Sharp restrictions on the use of pesticides, passed by the European Parliament on Tuesday (13 January), will see the use of a number of highly toxic chemicals within pesticides banned and pesticide use severely reduced.
The restrictions are found in two separate bills - one that eliminates very hazardous substances from pesticides and another that tries to reduce use of all pesticides.
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The vote is the final step in the adoption of the legisation at the EU level, other than the formality of member states' approval, after three years of discussions.
Around 22 substances used within pesticides that cause cancer, endanger reproduction or our genes are to be prohibited, as well as those that negatively affect our nervous, immune or hormonal systems.
However, if plants are at serious risk, use of these substances may still be approved for up to five years.
A positive list of permitted active substances - the key ingredients of pesticides - is to be drawn up at EU level, with the European Food Safety Authority playing a major role. New pesticides will then be licensed at national level on the basis of this list.
Substances likely to be harmful to honeybees will also be outlawed. Bees are essential for the pollination of up to 80 million tonnes of EU food produce, although up to 20 percent of pesticides may be toxic to bees. The use of pesticides has been widely blamed as one of the reasons for the recent sudden die-off of bee communities around the planet.
Europe will be split up into three distinct pesticide-licensing zones - centre, north and south - with compulsory mutual recognition within each zone. The move is a compromise with the member states, as MEPs had earlier preferred a single zone covering the use of pesticides across the EU.
Nevertheless, the earliest any pesticide will be taken off the market, as the new law allows those that are permitted under current legislation to continue to be sold until their existing authorisation expires.
In the second bill, member states are to draft national action plans, with specific targets on how to reduce the risks and impacts of pesticides and to encourage alternative ways of controlling pests.
Crop dusting banned
Aerial crop spraying will also be almost completely prohibited, although some exceptions to this general rule will remain.
Pesticide use near children's playgrounds, schools, hospitals and public parks has also been banned or otherwise severely restricted.
Countries must also protect drinking water by establishing pesticide buffer zones around bodies of water and "safeguard zones" for any surface and groundwater used that will ultimately come out of someone's tap.
The UK government and British agribusiness interests have fought the legislation tooth and nail, arguing that the moves will result in massive drops in production yields and threatening EU member states with food shortages.
"Carrots, onions, broccoli, cauliflowers, cabbage, parsnips, and peas will become impossible to grow," said Sarah Pettitt, deputy chairwoman of the National Union of Farmers Horticulture Board.
"Fruit and vegetable prices will start to increase as damaged crops are left in the field to rot and low income families will start to struggle to afford healthy food for their children," she added.
"Within the next five years the health of our nation will be at risk. People are going to seriously suffer."
Robert Sturdy, a British Conservative MEP also warned the legislation would increase volatility in the food supply.
"Many of the products on the market today are safe when used correctly, and have been around for years. Without crop protection products, our food supplies will be volatile at a time when food security is rising up the political agenda.
The UK's Soil Association, which promotes pesticide-free agriculture, called such suggestions "nonsense".
"Organic farmers prove that you can grow good crops with minimal or no use of pesticides," the group said in a statement. The Soil Association says research based on UK government data suggests that more food could in fact be produced under organic production.
Calling the vote "fantastic", environmental and health groups were ecstatic, however.
"The EU is just a heartbeat from eliminating dietary and occupational exposure to the worst carcinogenic and mutagenic pesticides", said Elliott Cannell, a spokesperson for Pesticide Action Network.