Thursday

24th Sep 2020

Investigation

Pesticide producers push back to halt EU ban

  • The two pesticides in question are chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos-methyl - whose EU approval is due to run out in January 2020. (Photo: Nick Shaw / Banana Link)

Agri-chemical manufacturers are putting pressure on the EU to prevent a ban of two disputed pesticides that damage the brain of foetuses and young children - in what might be a last attempt before the products' approval expires in the new year.

The two pesticides in question are chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos-methyl, which some nine member states ban already, and which EUobserver has been reporting on this year, and which have faced a major backlash from environmental and health groups.

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Documents obtained by Le Monde show how the producers are now trying to extend the current EU approval, which is due to expire on 31 January 2020.

Representatives from Corteva, created from the merger of Dow (the inventor of the pesticide products), and DuPont, told EU commission officials back in January 2019 that "regulation should not be done on the basis of public pressure triggered by activists which do not trust the legal regulatory system but on sound evidence", according to an internal report.

A law consultancy firm, Fieldfisher, acting on behalf of a Portuguese producer Ascenza, claimed the company was "legitimately and truly surprised" by how the commission had handled the case; it was "highly unusual, not to say irregular," the lawyers wrote.

Meanwhile, lobbying firm EPPA in October stated that the commission had been pushed to "overreact", and was "guided by strong NGO and media pressure."

But while Brussels NGOs have been active, they have not been isolated voices. The scientific community has been concerned for more than 15 years.

In 2006 the EU gave the green light to the insecticide for 10 years. Yet a study by Columbia University documented prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos caused significant developmental delays.

Later studies showed IQ deficits of up to seven points, reduced working memory, attention deficit disorders with or without hyperactivity, and autism spectrum disorders.

An international team of researchers has estimated that exposure to organophosphate pesticides, among them chlorpyrifos, wipes out a total of 13 million IQ points each year, and causes 59,300 cases of intellectual disability in Europe.

In November 2018, Scandinavian scientists Axel Mie, Christina Rudén and Philippe Grandjean reported major anomalies in the study by Dow (now Corteva), filed to the EU in 1999 during the initial authorisation process.

This study showed unambiguously that chlorpyrifos damaged the brains of laboratory rats, contrary to what the conclusion stated.

However, evaluation of the most worrying aspects of chlorpyrifos was never done by the EU, as revealed by the team behind Chlorpyrifos – the most dangerous pesticide you've never heard of in June 2019.

One month later the commission initiated an unprecedented procedure. It asked the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to urgently publish an interim statement on the effects on human health, while EFSA's review of Spain's proposal was still ongoing.

On 2 August EFSA experts highlighted the potential geno-toxicity of chlorpyrifos (adverse effects on DNA that can cause cancer) and the neuro-developmental effects pointed out by the Scandinavian researchers.

The same conclusion applied to chlorpyrifos-methyl, the two toxic profiles being considered similar.

Farmers push back

The manufacturers were not pleased.

In a letter dated 11 October, Corteva insisted on the distinction between chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos-methyl. Neither are geno-toxic, asserted Thomas W. Lyall, the regulatory and stewardship leader for Corteva .

There is "no evidence of developmental neurotoxicity in animals or humans from either chlorpyrifos or chlorpyrifos-methyl", he claimed.

Corteva acknowledged there had been an "apparent reduction of cerebellum heights" in rats back in the study filed in 1999, but stated this had "no biological relevance".

Finally, one final group entered the scene - farmers. The Copa-Cogeca umbrella organisation defending the interests of the major players in the agricultural sector.

Copa-Cogeca asked for a "sufficient grace period" for producers to make a transition.

Otherwise, the withdrawal "could significantly compromise European fruit and vegetable production", as "there are no equally efficient alternatives".

The letter thus seemed to ignore that the ban of chlorpyrifos in nine countries had not lead to a collapse of fruit and vegetable production.

A majority of member states representatives are said to be in favour of a chlorpyrifos ban when they meet this week (5 to 6 December.)

On chlorpyrifos-methyl, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Slovenia and Sweden have indicated that they will vote for the non-renewal of approval.

Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, as well as Poland, are believed to be against. The outcome though depends on if a qualified majority can be reached (55 per cent of the member states, 65 per cent of the EU population.)

Spain, producer of more than half of the oranges in Europe, has been "rapporteur" for the two pesticides since the beginning of the millennium.

Asked by online media El Confidencial, the Spanish agriculture ministry declined to comment on the country's role.

The commission in October notified the World Trade Organization on the impending decision, and set the maximum residue limits on imported products at the lowest detectable level (0.01 mg/kg).

"We strongly disagree with EFSA's conclusions and the European Commission's proposals for non-renewal. No active substance has been researched more thoroughly than chlorpyrifos", Corteva's corporate communications leader Véronique Marquès said by email.

The company declined to comment on whether it would take the commission to court should the two products be banned.

Author bio

Staffan Dahllof writes for Investigative Reporting Denmark and Stephane Horel for Le Monde.

The second phase of the cross-border investigation on chlorpyrifos is led by Investigative Reporting Denmark, in collaboration with journalists from Knack in Belgium, Le Monde in France, VG in Norway, Newsweek in Poland, Oštro in Slovenia, El Confidencial in Spain, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Bayerischer Rundfunk (ARD) in Germany. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting contributed.

The investigation is supported by Journalismfund.eu and the Reporters in the field / Robert Bosch Stiftung.

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