Silence around pesticides
The spraying of DDT and other pesticides provoked the 1962 book ‘Silent spring’, one of the early landmarks of environmentalism. How rich in biodiversity is the spring of 2010, and how many bird songs are missing because of pesticide use? Daniel Lesinsky, board member of Pesticide Action Network Europe, responds.
- Valentin Zahrnt:
- Biodiversity is a key theme of the CAP debate. Human health concerns take a backseat. How serious is the threat of pesticides to our health?
- Daniel Lesinsky:
Pesticides are toxic chemicals that are released into the environment to kill certain pests. But a large percentage of the pesticides reach a destination other than their target, entering the air, water, sediments and even ending up in our food. The people most exposed to pesticides and agrochemicals are of course farm workers. However, we are all surrounded by pesticides and agrichemicals. Take children playing in the gardens while pesticides are being sprayed on neighboring fields.
The effects of small quantities of pollutants accumulating in biosystems and in human bodies are poorly understood. There is special need to protect vulnerable groups, such as children. Their bodies are still developing and their systems for protecting the body from toxic chemicals are still immature. Pregnant women are also at risk and exposure during pregnancy can cause birth defects. The consequences in cases of so-called delayed functional toxicity may not become manifest until adulthood.
Possible health effects of pesticides include immunological effects, endocrine disrupting effects, neurotoxicological disorders and cancer. For instance, there is concern about the high prevalence of reproductive disorders in European boys and young men and about the rise in cancers of reproductive organs. Research indicates a strong connection between environmental pollution and the continuous exposure to low levels of a large number of endocrine disrupters, which can act in concert. Therefore, reducing pesticide-related threats to human health should become a key theme in the forthcoming CAP discussions along side the debate on biodiversity and climate change.
- How does the EU address this problem?
- Many policy makers maintain that the recent regulation on the authorization and marketing of plant protection products goes far enough. In reality, pesticides regulation is only in its infancy. Industry succeeded in delaying the legislative procedure that was launched in 1991 for more than 17 years. This means that the pesticides on the market are tested based on criteria that are two decades old. Furthermore, many pesticides were only approved due to political pressure, though their health effects were unacceptable. The new scientific evidence, like endocrine disruption and developmental effects, are still not properly taken into account, putting the unborn particularly at risk. Similarly, ‘cocktail effects’ are not analyzed: different pesticide residues in our food may interact in harmful ways.
The EU has taken additional action by means of Directive 2009/128/EC on the sustainable use of pesticides which obliges EU farmers to apply integrated pest management (IPM) as from 2014. This new directive says that ‘professional users of pesticides switch to practices and products with the lowest risk to human health and the environment among those available for the same pest problem’, and it stresses that ‘Member states shall take all necessary measures to promote low pesticide-input pest management, giving wherever possible priority to non-chemical methods.’
- How does this pesticide regulation relate to the CAP?
- The success of this new policy depends first of all on member states’ willingness to establish a technical, financial and moral support framework guiding farmers to deliver more sustainable practices. Member states should offer early warning systems against pests, IPM advisory systems, IPM training, and access to non-chemical alternatives. This is where the CAP should help.
More generally, the new CAP should compensate farmers for avoiding monoculture and employing responsible agricultural practices: rotating crop systems, smaller plots, buffer zones and buffer strips, hedges, etc. The spirit should be: ‘the more you deliver sustainable practices, the more public funding you get’.
- What would be the right balance between subsidies and other policy instruments?
- We should apply the ‘polluter-pays’ principle more rigorously. Society should not be obliged to pay subsidies so that pesticides pollute water a little less, harm biodiversity a little less, leave a little less residues in our food. Sustainable agricultural practices should be the legal baseline – and this baseline should be better enforced. In addition, chemical inputs into agriculture should be taxed. This is already the case in some member states, for instance in Denmark. The money earned by these taxes can then be used to subsidize environmentally-friendly farming systems that go further than the legal baseline.
There is no doubt that improvements have been achieved since Rachel Carson wrote ‘Silent spring’ in 1962 but much more still needs to be done.
The Pesticide Action Network Europe also highlights the following scientific article:
‘A Europe-wide study in eight western and eastern European countries found important negative effects of agricultural intensification on wild plant, carabid and bird species diversity and on the potential for biological pest control. Of the 13 components of intensification measured, the use of insecticides and fungicides had consistent negative effects on biodiversity. The study concludes that despite decades of European policy to ban harmful pesticides, the negative effects of pesticides on wild plant and animal species persist. At the same time the opportunities for biological pest control are reduced. If biodiversity is to be restored in Europe and opportunities are to be created for crop production using biodiversity- based ecosystem services like biological pest control, there must be a Europe-wide shift towards farming with minimal use of pesticides over large areas’ (Geiger, F et al ‘Persistent negative effects of pesticides on biodiversity and biological control potential on European farmland. Basis and Applied Ecology’ (2010), doi: 10.1016/j.baae.2009.12.001).