Banned pesticides deemed toxic to humans and environmental health are still consistently in use in the EU thanks to the routine use of emergency derogations, a new report has found.
The report, produced by the campaign group Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN), analysed the emergency authorisations for 24 pesticide-active substances between 2019 and 2022.
As these pesticides have been either proven to be highly toxic for human health and the environment or to contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, they have been banned in the EU.
However, it found that, out of the 24 investigated banned pesticide substances, a total of 236 emergency authorisations were granted for 14 substances between 2019 and 2022.
Neonicotinoid pesticides, associated with bee decline, account for almost half of the authorisations, while one pesticide, 1,3-Dichloropropene, was granted derogations even though it was never approved for use in the EU.
The EU co-legislators set up the derogation system to accommodate specific urgent circumstances which cannot be controlled by any other reasonable means.
These emergency authorisations are designed to be limited in time, i.e. for a period not exceeding 120 days.
However, the report found some member states systematically rely on these derogations year after year while failing to implement integrated pest management (IPM) techniques.
IPM is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on the long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques applied in order of hierarchy to minimise the use of chemical plant protection products to the greatest extent possible.
Although applying IPM principles is already a mandatory part of the sustainable use of pesticides directive, actions on IPM have been slow and support sorely lacking, according to the EU court of auditors, who concluded in February 2020 that there had been limited progress in measuring and reducing the associated risks.
In particular, the report singles out Spain as a repeat offender, although Austria was found to be the “champion” of derogations – a fact that may come as a surprise given that the country is often held up as a poster child of organic agriculture.
The report found that, in most cases, the derogations were asked by the industry or public authorities, while farmers requested only four in Greece.
Slamming the “widespread abuse” of this emergency mechanism, Martin Dermine, executive director of PAN Europe, stressed that a derogation “should be an exception, only to be used on special occasions under unforeseen circumstances”.
“This widespread abuse makes the EU pesticide legislation as leaky as a sieve,” he said.
Commission looking to tighten system
An EU source told EURACTIV that the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) found that, in most cases, the emergency authorisations by the member states were duly justified.
However, where EFSA found that the justifications provided by member states were not satisfactory, the Commission has “adopted decisions prohibiting the member states concerned to repeat these emergency authorisations”.
The source added that, in its latest mandate, the Commission has also tasked EFSA to improve the protocols to assess whether emergency authorisations are “adequately justified” in efforts to allow for “even more robust scrutiny in the future”.
Reflection of regulatory weakness
Asked for a reaction, a representative from Croplife Europe, which represents Europe’s crop protection industry, reiterated that emergency authorisations are “restricted to cases of obvious danger to plant production that cannot be contained by any other reasonable means”.
According to the association, the reasons for these authorisations are ‘manifold’, including delays for product authorisations and/or lack of mutual recognition.
“Essentially, it is a symptom of poor implementation of aspects of the current regulation,” they explained, referring to the so-called 1107/2009 regulation concerning placing plant protection products on the market.
As such, they stressed the need for systems to accelerate the approval process for new active substances and products as well as to create a fast-track process to extend approvals for speciality crops, which could potentially address some of these applications.
The representative added that the majority of these authorisations are granted for speciality crops – mainly fruits and vegetables – for which growers often “lacks registered solutions”.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]