In praise of pesticides

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Agriculture

Who likes pesticides? Misunderstood by consumers and misrepresented by pressure groups, pesticides are a soft target for legislators. The latest blow to that soft target could have hard consequences for the European food industry and for developing countries.

That blow came earlier this month in the form of the European Parliament’s vote to tighten even further the approval process for new pesticides and restrict the use of existing ones.

Although some proposals, such as higher standards for spray operators, are desirable, Europe does not need yet more pesticide approval legislation to choke the existing tightly-regulated approvals process, which requires years’ worth of data from laboratory and field trials together with ecological information before an approval can be considered by the licensing authorities.

Supporters of the new proposals promise improved human health and ecological benefits. But the science to support those claims is at best unclear. The UK Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD) and the National Farmers Union (NFU) have all highlighted uncertainties in the proposals and lack of impact assessments.

Meanwhile, the new legislation threatens devastating consequences at home and abroad. Within Europe, the tighter legislation, due to be in force by 2011, will result in 15 to 20 per cent of pesticides disappearing from the market, warns the PSD.

Volatile food prices will become even more volatile. Denying farmers the full armoury of agrochemicals they need could result in unpredictable pests, diseases and weeds taking an increasing toll on crop quality and quantity. And that threatens not just higher food prices for consumers and the food companies, which keep their larders so well stocked, but the viability of rural economies, which depend on reasonable and predictable commodity prices.

Organic production measures certainly have their place but only its most ardent supporters would suggest that Europe could rely on such methods. Organic farming is just too unreliable.

Neither can we rely on imports to supply adequate quantities of reasonably-priced food. Who needs reminding of the weather-induced food commodity price swings of the past year?

Rising fuel and raw material costs and competition for land from biofuels will only further imperil food production. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, another 40 million people will go hungry in a world where one in six already end each day without having had enough to eat.

It is a worry shared by UK DEFRA secretary Hillary Benn. Addressing the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month he said: “I want British agriculture to produce as much food as possible. No ifs. No buts.”​ What a contrast with his predecessors who seemed more concerned with conservation than cereal production.

Tighter pesticide legislation could be even more damaging in developing countries. The Campaign for Fighting Diseases (CFD) has already warned that the new rules could compromise the fight against vector-borne diseases such as malaria which already kills one million people a year.

As the European pesticide market contracts, agrochemical companies will have fewer resources and less incentive to fund the research and development programmes needed to identify the new weapons in the fight against malaria.

So worried is CFD by Europe’s pesticide proposals, a spokesperson said: “Public health insecticides represent only one per cent of the pesticide market and manufacturers are very dependent on the sales of pesticides in the agricultural market.”

There is still time to reconsider the EU’s ill-thought out new pesticide rules. Unless more people learn not to pillory pesticides but to praise them - or at least to acknowledge the good they do - there will be a big price to pay. The currency of that price will be higher European food costs and soaring death rates in developing countries.

Mike Stones has written on food and farming topics for 20 years. He lives in Southern France and co-owns a small family arable farm in northern England. If you would like to comment on this article please email michael.stones ‘at’

Related topics: Policy, Views

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