War of words on the pros and cons of usage
Since the days of yore, the role played by pesticides in the agriculture sector can not be denied but with the advent of synthetic products, the accompanying dangers to humans have multiplied. The European Parliament, the only directly-elected European institution, is set to vote on new legislation regarding the authorisation, sale and use of hazardous pesticides in the European Union.
Commenting on the subject after a September vote in the EP Environment Committee (ENVI) on her report revising existing legislation on pesticide authorisations, German Green MEP and rapporteur Hiltrud Breyer said, “Pesticides are toxic substances, manufactured with the intention of killing, yet they end up on our plates and, ultimately, in our bodies. Future legislation must ensure that pesticides that are dangerous for consumers and the environment are gradually taken off the market, a fact that was strongly made in my report, which was adopted by the ENVI Committee today.”
Breyer called for more applied research in the sector saying, “Well-designed provisions for substitution of harmful substances with less dangerous ones can create a win-win situation: reducing risk for consumers, users and the environment, while at the same time stimulating innovation in the chemical industry. This approach should be strengthened for EU-wide approval of active substances, as well as for national authorisations of pesticide products.”
In view of the upcoming vote in the European Parliament, an event organised on the Brussels premises of EP took additional significance. Presenting its findings, Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) and Pesticide Action Network Europe said that in July 2007 they had purchased eight fruit items from the GB Express supermarket in the European Parliament building (Brussels) and analysed them for the presence of pesticide residues.
“All 28 pesticides detected have known or suspected links with negative impacts on human health, while residues on apricot, grapes and oranges exceeded legal limits, making these fruits illegal to sell,” they alleged. The statement added, “In total, the eight fruit samples analysed contained some 28 different pesticide residues, including 10 known carcinogens, three neurotoxins, three developmental toxins, and eight suspected endocrine disruptors.
Two of contaminants are classified as being ‘Highly Hazardous’. None of the food items was pesticide-free.” Three of the eight food samples analysed (apricot, grapes, orange) contained pesticide residues in excess of EC Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) – thus rendering their sale illegal.
The apricot contained excessive levels of a suspected endocrine disruptor, one bunch of grapes showed illegal amounts of a known carcinogen, and the oranges were contaminated with elevated concentrations of two different pesticides, both linked with cancer and reproductive or developmental toxicity.
The Belgian-grown strawberries contained a staggering 14 different pesticide residues, of which five are known carcinogens.
The oranges, grown in Spain, contained the toxic pesticide imazalil at levels substantially above the “Acceptable Daily Intake” for a five-year old toddler.
Commenting on the results, MEP Breyer said, “The result of this pesticide test is alarming. It clearly shows that it is high time to better protect consumers and the environment from the harmful effects of dangerous pesticides.” “The results come as a big worry to all parents wanting to make sure that their children grow up healthily. Times and again pesticides are found in residues which exceed the provisions of the EU baby food directive by up to 200 percent. Children are especially susceptible to toxic pesticides. There are over 90 pesticides which harm children’s neurological development and impair their IQ.”
“These findings represent a total indictment of food products on sale in the EU,” said Elliott Cannell, a spokesperson for Pesticides Action Network PAN Europe. “And most of these fruit items were grown here too. All eight pieces of fruit that we tested contained toxic substances that simply shouldn’t be in the European food chain.”
“Three percent of EU food products contain pesticide residues above what is suspected to be harmless in the longer term,” said Dr Ludo Holsbeek, an Ecotoxicologist from the Vrije Universiteit Brussels. “Even more than with the European Chemicals regulation, the new regulation on plant protection products offers the chance of a healthier environment and better food protection – all this without endangering agriculture.” “The goals of creating a healthier environment and better food protection are not in contradiction with the principles of long term sustainable agriculture, nor with the search for new, less stable, non-bioaccumulative and non-environmentally harmful pesticides,” Holsbeek added.
Agreeing, “The root cause of food contamination is very simple,” Cannell aptly put it, “We spray excessive quantities of toxic chemicals onto our food as it’s growing in the field. So it’s no wonder that many of these substances end up on our dining tables.”
On the other hand, agriculture sector pundits pointed to the fact that the approval and use of pesticides is put under strict controls by the EFSA (the European Food Safety Agency) and by the competent authorities in the members states, participating in this process with environmental authorities.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is working under a tough deadline until December 2008 to complete its review of existing active substances in plant protection products. It has more than 300 crop protection products to process, but it is only able to examine four products per month.
The National Farmers’ Union NFU, representing farmers in England and Wales recently lamented this unrealistic deadline and called for an extension of this time barrier. NFU vice President Paul Temple said, “Farmers face having their hands tied by a ridiculous situation of not being able to protect their crops if this arbitrary political deadline stays in place. It is a bureaucratic decision, which has nothing to do with food or environmental safety.”
Farmers’ Guardian cited Temple as saying, “We don’t want manufacturers having to withdraw products which they have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds getting onto the market simply because of a political deadline. Pesticide resistance will become an issue if farmers are forced to use one or a very small range of products.”
After a visit to EFSA’s offices in Parma, Italy, Temple added: “We were very impressed by the independence and firmly science-based nature of EFSA. They have a significant and challenging job to cover all the required issues from 27 member states, and should not be put under pressure by needless deadlines.”
Speaking in Belgium another agriculture guru said, “Healthy crops contribute to improve the environment, compensating the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases of other economic and social activities and to generate wealth and jobs in rural areas. It offers consumers a diversified basket of products and favours the maintenance of a healthful diet.”
“For this reason EFSA has set Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) for each crop to protect consumers from any possible harm arising from residues. So even eating food with residues at the maximum limit will not cause any adverse health effects. This is largely because the responsible on-farm treatment of a given crop leads to even lower residues than the MRL. Processing, storage, washing and cooking all combine to further reduce residues. It is important to recognise that a residue does not mean a risk. No groups of the population are exposed to residues in food at levels that threaten their health,” added one market analyst who did not want to be named.
“It is regrettable that large retailers as GB/Carrefour have not understood the message and confront their consumers with non-conform products. Quality has a price and this should be known by each responsible purchase manager of the superstores,” regretted the Belgian agriculture pundit.
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