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17th Jan 2021

Pesticide risk unknown due to lack of data, auditors warn

  • The EU commission created a 'low-risk' pesticide category, but only three percent of these are available for farmers' use (Photo: Pixabay)

The European Commission is unable to monitor risks resulting from the use of pesticides, due to a lack of detailed, harmonised and updated data, the European Court of Auditors warned on Wednesday (5 February).

"The commission has been unable so far to substantially reduce and control risks associated to pesticides use by farmers," said Samo Jereb, the member of the audit court responsible for the report on EU action on pesticides. The auditors also believe that the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was a missed opportunity to address this issue.

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Additionally, the court criticised the fact that there are few incentives to help European farmers to reduce their dependency on pesticides. The commission created a "low-risk" pesticide category, but only three percent of these (16 out of 478 substances) are available for farmers' use.

However, the president of the commission, Ursula von der Leyen, wants to improve the approval and authorisation system for pesticides - to facilitate market access for low-risk substances in the next two years, according to a leaked document of the 'Farm to Fork' strategy seen by EUobserver.

EU-wide target?

Reducing "significantly" the use and risk of chemical pesticides was a requirement set by the commission when they presented the European Green Deal in December last year.

However, it is not clear whether this will be translated into a binding EU-wide target.

"We need an agro-ecological transformation of EU farming that will drastically reduce our dependence on agrochemicals. To achieve this, the commission must send a clear message now and announce binding reduction targets for pesticides in agriculture," said Jabier Ruiz, the agriculture and food policy officer of NGO World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Pesticides are chemicals used for the protection of plants and crops, but they are potentially toxic to humans and can have both acute and chronic health effects.

In Europe, half of the food tested in 2016 contained pesticide residues.

According to the auditors, the European Union needs quantified and feasible data to set EU targets to reduce the use and impact of harmful pesticides.

"Improving the statistics and data available will help the commission to know where we are, and where we want to be," said Jereb.

Last year, the European Parliament also backed this initiative due to the harmful effects of these active substances on bees and other pollinators, as well as on food safety.

Already a decade late

However, according to the auditors, the commission will only be able to set feasible and scientific-based targets when it has detailed data about "how, when and where" pesticides are used.

To do so, this information should also be harmonised and comparable across member states, Jereb said.

Likewise, these targets could also help member states to speed up the reduction of their use of pesticides - a decade after rules urge them to use these products sustainably.

The EU has had common rules on the authorisation and use of pesticides since 1991, as well as on the sustainable use of pesticides since 2009.

However, many member states were late in transposing EU rules into national law, what resulted in significant gaps in their national action plans and a lack of measurable data that makes it almost impossible to assess the progress made.

"It is difficult to say if these rules are successful or not if you don't have the data available for such analysis," Jereb warned.

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A majority of EU member states are believed to be in favour of not renewing approval for the pesticides chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos-methyl, when they meet in Brussels later this week.

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EU proposes pesticide ban, but key documents still secret

Time is running out for chlorpyrifos, the pesticide which is a cause of brain damage to human fetuses and newly-born children. The EU Commission and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have both stated approval should not be renewed.

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