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Zehra Zaidi: The EU pesticides ban will result in lower yields and higher prices

Picture_2 Zehra Zaidi is a a solicitor and a Conservative candidate at the forthcoming European election for the South West of England and Gibraltar who blogs here. In this article she asserts that the recent EU ban on pesticides will result in lower yields and higher prices and asks in these tough economic times when food security is such a critical issue, whether it is any wonder that the farming community has been left bewildered.

Last week, the European Parliament overwhelmingly approved legislation to limit the use of pesticides across the EU. The aim is to ban substances that may cause cancer, pose a risk to human reproduction or hormones or threaten wildlife such as the industrious honeybee.

Reducing the use of harmful pesticides is understandable.  But the legislation is too simplistic and fails to balance the competing concerns of consumer and environmental protection and ensuring food production in the EU.  One of the most contested measures is the introduction of a hazard based system devised by the European Commission.  Certain potentially hazardous active ingredients are to be identified within a chemical and under so-called “cut-off criteria”, if any of these ingredients is contained in a pesticide it will be banned irrespective of the risk attached to its use. 

One cannot however, simply legislate on a “what if” basis.  Conservative MEPs have long pushed for an EU wide impact assessment.  The agricultural industry (as well as horticulture and forestry) relies on pesticides to protect crops from insects and pests and diseases associated with our wet climate.  Many of the longstanding pesticides available on the market today are safe when used properly.  Indeed, the UK has some of the highest standards of pesticide control in the EU.

Ironically, given such standards and our record of complying with EU legislation – and indeed sadly gold-plating such legislation – British farmers may be some of the most severely hit under the Pesticides Directive.  The legislation could see a reduction in British food output by 25%.  It has been reported that the entire carrot yield could be wiped out and cereal production could fall by as much as 20%, with reduced yields of potatoes, onions and parsnips.  The end product would be price hikes and that in a time of economic downturn and growing unemployment.

British MEPs from the Conservative Party, Labour and SNP voted against the proposed legislation.  Whilst the legislation was still passed by a vote of 577 to 61 MEPs, Conservatives have tried to extrapolate the most damaging aspects of the Directive due to come into force in 2010.  Two key points are of note.  First, derogation is possible whereby some chemicals can remain on the market for five years after the introduction of the legislation.  A further derogation can be invoked at the end of this five year period.  Second, the number of cut-off criteria has been limited, leaving 22 products at risk.  Some of these chemicals have replacements but others are vital to the UK farming industry. Thanks to Conservative efforts, manufacturers will at least have until 2019 to develop alternatives.

What of organic food?  Despite the benefits of organic production, it simply cannot meet global food demands.  Food security is a critical issue in our time with an ever growing world population. There has been some global discussion of adopting trade and agricultural policies that will in fact encourage the domestic production of staples and raise self-sufficiency.  This point seems lost on the drafters of the Directive.  The legislation means that there will an urgent need to develop new products but in tight economic conditions, few companies will be able to plough money into such a programme and given the finite time period within which to develop other products, there is a real possibility that these may not be available when the ban does come into force.

One of the most worrying impacts of this legislation may be on the developing world.  In a market where demand outstrips supply, the EU will be able to import more expensive food to the detriment of poorer nations. This is especially true of staples.  For example, an obvious alternative to potato consumption is rice.  The latter is part of the staple diet in much of the developing world but its production has already been under threat in recent years.  As rice may be imported to replace mashed potatoes and the humble chip, those in the developing world will inevitably suffer even more.  Moreover, it is likely that EU manufacturers will have to allocate increased sums to Research and Development in order to ensure that new products are available for food production and the protection of crops.  This may lead to companies limiting their public health programmes to combat malaria and other diseases in the developing world.  Far fetched?   Not really.

The short-sightedness with which the Pesticides Directive has been brought about is lamentable.  What is even more suprising is that given the importance of agriculture in the EU, the European Commission and Parliament have pushed through legislation that will curtail food production and threaten the livelihoods of farmers. Crop protection will be limited, expensive and uncertain as the industry awaits the development of new products.  The EU's goal of eliminating extreme poverty in developing countries may also have been dealt a hefty blow. For all the Government's opposition, it has had limited impact.   The Council of Ministers is expected to ratify the legislation at a meeting in April or May.   I sincerely hope that the UK Government can secure an EU wide impact assessment before the Directive becomes law because the potential ramifications are wide-ranging and potentially catastrophic.  Back home, the role of DEFRA will be crucial in seeking derogations and ensuring that any implementing legislation is not gold-plated to make the Directive even more onerous that is currently proposed.


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