Risks to the environment underestimated: eu pesticide testers want reform

Risks to the environment are underestimated in the approval process, government advisors criticize. They demand that pesticide combinations also be examined.

How much poison gets onto the field? A barley field in Rhineland-Palatinate Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa

Several scientists from the EU Food Safety Authority (Efsa) are calling for the testing of environmental risks from pesticides to be reformed. "The assessment of pesticides does not take into account many stress factors that have become more prevalent in recent years – such as climate change, habitat destruction and the increasing uniformity of the landscape," Christopher John Topping and two other experts write in a paper for the prestigious journal Science. The combination of these factors could exacerbate the effects of agricultural toxins, they say. That’s why the EU needs to assess chemicals "more holistically," he says.

Conventional farmers spray pesticides to harvest more and save labor for mechanical weed control, for example. "However, pesticides have been linked to declines in insects, birds and aquatic biodiversity," the scientists cite several studies. If the chemicals are even partially responsible, they say, that raises questions about the approval process, which must protect the environment. They say the rules lag behind the state of research and society’s demands for sustainable food production.

The authors consider it particularly outdated that the authorities consider the environmental impact of each pesticide individually. It is normal for several products to be sprayed simultaneously or consecutively in one region. At present, the authorities also ignore how much area a pesticide is applied to. They would underestimate the long-term risks, for example, for those insects that the agent is not intended to kill ("non-target organisms"). That’s because in their calculations, the agencies would assume that animals could escape to larger areas than realistic. Species with a large range, such as bees, "are exposed to a pesticide cocktail that is even more diverse than that applied in a single field," the article says.

The experts also criticize the agencies for studying the effects on only a few species. "Over time, it has become obvious that certain aspects were overlooked or simply unknown," the scientists said.

Experts want EU mandate

They therefore recommend using models to analyze the effects of pesticides across entire landscapes. Pesticides should no longer be considered individually, but in groups. First, the effects on arthropods and bees, where it is particularly urgent, should be studied. "This can be done reasonably quickly under the current legal framework if a mandate comes from the EU Commission or Parliament," the authors said.

The three scientists are members of the Efsa Panel on Plant Protection Products and their Residues. This commission reviews the risks of pesticides for the EU and proposes, for example, limit values.

In response to a question from the taz, Ecpa, the association of European pesticide manufacturers, was open to using landscape models in the testing of chemicals.

Criticism from environmentalists

The environmental organization Pesticide Action Network (PAN) criticized that it would take many years to develop such a system. "Given the current collapse of biodiversity, we don’t have time to design something completely new," said Hans Muilerman, chemistry coordinator for the Brussels-based association. "Our solution is to update the current system and test sensitive species." Agents would have to be tested under realistic conditions in contaminated agricultural landscapes.

Toppings responded that the PAN proposal would only result in fewer pesticide registrations. "This ignores the fact that agriculture needs alternatives that do not advance," the Dane wrote to the taz. If fewer types of pesticides are available, he said, the risk of weeds becoming resistant, for example, increases.

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