Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Ninth Report


The European Scrutiny Committee has agreed to the following Report:—






COM(02) 349

Commission Communication: "Towards a thematic strategy on the sustainable use of pesticides".

Legal base:


Document originated:

1 July 2002

Deposited in Parliament:

17 July 2002


Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Basis of consideration:

EM of 19 July 2002

Previous Committee Report:

None, but see footnote 2

To be discussed in Council:

9-10 December 2002

Committee's assessment:

Politically important

Committee's decision:

For debate in European Standing Committee A



    1. Because of the potential environmental and health risks from pesticides[1], their sustainable use has long been one of the Community's general objectives, and has been identified as such in both the Fifth Environmental Action Programme and in the strategy adopted by the Agricultural Council in 1999 for environmental integration and sustainable development in the Common Agricultural Policy. More recently, the Sixth Environmental Action Programme[2] seeks to make further progress through a thematic strategy which would minimise the hazards and risks to health and the environment from the use of pesticides; improve controls on their distribution and use; reduce the levels of harmful active substances by various means; encourage the use of low-input or pesticide-free crop farming; and establish a transparent system for reporting and monitoring.
    2. This Communication is intended to set out ways in which such a strategy might be implemented, and thus to initiate a consultation leading to the development in 2003 of specific measures, which would be presented to the Council and European Parliament at the beginning of 2004.
    3. The current document

    4. In setting the background to its Communication, the Commission says that the Community market for PPPs is worth _6 billion a year, and accounts for about 25% of the world market. Current consumption amounts to about 320,000 tonnes of active substances each year, of which about 43% are fungicides, 36% herbicides, and 21% insecticides and other pesticides. By far the biggest volume used is in agriculture, notably on cereals, vegetables and potatoes; and, although this fell slightly in the early 1990s as a result of developments such as set-aside, consumption now appears to be rising again. However, the Commission adds that consumption figures need to be treated with some caution, since they say little about the nature of the active substances involved, and hence the associated risks. It also observes that use in any given year is influenced by a range of factors, such as disease incidence and weather.
    5. The Communication points out that there are significance economic benefits associated with the use of PPPs, in that they help to safeguard or improve yields, enhance product quality, and minimise labour input. Also, by reducing annual fluctuations in yields, they play an essential role in ensuring reliable supplies, and making them more affordable: in addition, they reduce the area of land needed for food production, and so make more available for other uses.
    6. The Commission says that, because of these benefits, the risks to health and the environment associated with the use of pesticides have been accepted by society. It identifies those risks as arising from direct exposure (to those producing and using pesticides), and from indirect exposure (to consumers and bystanders). In the case of consumers, this risk is linked to the residual amounts of pesticides found in agricultural produce, as a result of which it says that maximum residue levels (MRLs) have been set at both national and Community levels for many pesticide-commodity combinations, with particular attention being devoted to sensitive groups, such as children and the elderly, and to workers subject to high exposure. The Commission also observes that exposure occurs via drinking water, and that, although this is strictly limited by the Drinking Water Directive, it requires constant monitoring. In this connection, it mentions the difficulties arising from diffuse sources of uncontrolled dissemination of pesticides, such as spray drift, leaching or run-off, as well as from uncontrolled illegal disposal.
    7. The Communication identifies the different types of risk. It says that acute effects are mainly due to the high toxicity of certain pesticides, whilst chronic effects include those due to bioaccumulation, such as carcinogenicity, mutagenicity and genotoxicity. It points out that in recent years the emergence of a new type hazard — endocrine disruption (which was the subject of a separate Communication[3] in December 1999) — has intensified the debate. However, it says that, as with the benefits, it is very hard to quantify the risks of pesticide use, still less to attribute a monetary value to them. Overall, it concludes that, whilst the use of pesticides is necessary to secure crop protection, the associated risks need to be reduced, with attention being paid not just to the volume applied. Thus, measures also need to be directed at the various stages in the life cycle of pesticides, covering their placing on the market and distribution, their application for crop protection purposes, their disposal, and residue levels.
    8. In reviewing the steps taken so far, the Communication notes that Community legislation distinguishes between "active substances" (the ingredients which carry the necessary biological activity) and "plant protection products" (which are the form in which the pesticide is put on the market, and may include other ingredients). It also points out that there may be a combination of several different active substances within a PPP, and that the use of several PPPs in a spray mix is frequent.
    9. More specifically, the Commission draws attention to two key Community legal instruments which directly affect pesticide use. First, Council Directive 91/414/EEC[4] deals with the placing of PPPs on the market, and seeks to guarantee that individual products have no harmful effects. In order to do this, it adopts a two-tier approach, in which active substances are evaluated, and only those where this has shown no unacceptable risks are allowed be used. The PPPs concerned then have to be individually authorised. Authorisations may be restricted to certain uses, and active substances where lack of such a risk cannot be demonstrated must be withdrawn from the market.
    10. The Commission also says that the Directive set in train a 12 year programme to review all current active substances, but that progress has been slow, and that the deadline for completing this review has recently been extended to July 2008. However, it comments that the Directive is in any case defective, in that it is primarily based on assessing individual compounds, and that the potential additive or synergistic effects of mixtures containing several active substances is evaluated to only a very limited extent. Also, the Directive does not provide for explicit checking at Community level that it is being properly enforced by the Member States.
    11. The second set of measures highlighted comprise a variety of different Directives[5] setting maximum residue levels (MRLs) on foodstuffs in commmodity-PPP combinations. These take into account the acceptable daily intake (ADI), and are expected to guarantee that the likely exposure is toxicologically acceptable. The Commission says that these levels are under constant review, but that the potential cumulative effects of different PPPs are not always taken into account. It notes that the percentage of samples without any detectable residues had increased from 60% in 1996 to 64% in 1999, but that there had also been a slight increase in the number of samples with multiple residues, or where the MRL had been exceeded. However, it notes that a considerable proportion of these cases were caused by misuse, and that actual consumer exposure remains well below the ADI. The Communication again says that implementation has not been as fast as expected, and that Community levels have been established for only a limited number of substances. It therefore intends to put forward in the near future a proposal which would aim to prevent any unnecessary exposure of consumers to residues through food by the best available agricultural methods.
    12. The Communication also mentions one other instrument having a direct impact in this area — the new Water Framework Directive[6], which seeks to assess, monitor and manage on a river basin scale all surface waters and groundwater according to their ecological and chemical status. This approach will be based on the precautionary principle and the sustainable use of water. For surface waters, it will introduce criteria for establishing a list of priority substances, for which specific measures such as quality standards and emission controls will have to be taken, whilst for groundwater it will propose criteria for assessing the chemical status of all pollutants.
    13. The Communication also discusses areas of Community activity which indirectly affect PPP use. These include:

    • The Common Agricultural Policy, which it says contributed to an intensification of production prior to the 1992 reforms, leading to a significant increase in PPP use. However, it also points out that those reforms introduced a number of beneficial elements, and that the changes agreed as part of Agenda 2000 (including a reduction in support payments for those who fall short of the necessary requirements, and a greater emphasis on sustainable development) should lead to a further strengthening of the links between agriculture and the environment.

    • Measures relating to the safety and health of workers, including Directive 98/24/EC on the protection from risks associated with chemical agents.

    • The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), where the development of herbicide and pest tolerant plants has implications for the use of PPPs, and where a risk evaluation is currently being undertaken.

    • A number of actual, or prospective, new initiatives, including a Communication on soil protection; a draft Community strategy on environment and health, a major overhaul of general Community policy on chemicals, and the proposed Directive on environmental liability. The Commission comments that it will be necessary for any thematic strategy on pesticides to be co-ordinated closely with these other steps.

    1. The Commission concludes that, although national and Community efforts so far have been encouraging, they lack overall coherence and the level of application needed to reduce PPP-related risks even further. It says this will require both a harmonised and full implementation of existing legislation, and a number of new initiatives in order to maintain momentum. The remainder of its Communication sets out possible elements of a thematic strategy under the following five headings in the Sixth Environmental Action Programme.
    2. —  Minimising the health and environmental hazards and risks from pesticides

    3. The Commission suggests:

    • that Member States should establish national plans within two years to address this need, and that these should be closely co-ordinated with similar actions under other Community legislation;

    • that there is a need to reduce particular risks, such as pollution from watercourses, ditches and catchment areas, chemical control measures in environmentally sensitive areas, and aerial spraying;

    • that knowledge of risks should be improved through monitoring the health of users at particularly high risk, collecting data on incidents having health consequences, and analysing economic data on PPP use; and

    • that further research should be conducted into less hazardous methods of application and handling, improved insurance schemes against potential crop losses in order to minimise preventive applications; potential synergistic and antagonistic effects in frequently used combinations of active substances, quantification of point source pollution and possible solutions; and improved methods of assessing chronic and acute risks to infants and children from residues.

—  Improved controls on use and distribution

    1. The Commission suggests:

    • that quantities produced and imported/exported should be reported to national authorities, and this information would then be passed on to the Commission enabling it to prepare an annual report;

    • that ongoing work on data collection concerning pesticide use should be reinforced, as should the system for monitoring distribution by wholesalers, retailers and farmers;

    • that a system should be introduced for the regular and safe collection, possible reuse, and eventual controlled destruction of PPP packaging and unused materials;

    • that a system of regular technical inspection of application equipment should be introduced; and

    • that a system of mandatory education and awareness training for all PPP users should be created, with emphasis being placed on safe use.

—  Reducing the levels of harmful active substances

    1. The Commission says that this would be achieved by the quicker implementation of Directive 91/414/EEC, which in practice would entail the systematic evaluation of the possible substitution of any active substances for which concerns exist.
    2. —  Encouragement of the use of low-input or pesticide-free crop farming

    3. The Commission says that this should include:

    • the promotion and development of alternatives to chemical control through integrated pest management agriculture, organic farming and biological control for specific uses, and examining the potential for using genetical modification technology when this is considered safe for health and the environment;

    • the promotion of good practice further integrating pest management concepts;

    • the imposition of penalties on users who breach environmental requirements, by reducing or cancelling benefits under support schemes;

    • further research into the possible eventual introduction of special levies on PPPs, of the kind already used in some Member States, so as to raise awareness of the detrimental effects of over-intensive use and to make non-chemical methods more competitive;

    • the harmonisation of VAT for PPPs, so as to remove the current major differences between Member States , and thereby ensure the smoother functioning of the internal market.

—  Transparent system for reporting and monitoring progress

    1. The Commission believes that there should be regular reporting on national risk reduction programmes, and the development of suitable indicators for monitoring and defining quantitative targets.
    2. Finally, the Commission points to the implications for the candidate countries and the wider international dimension. On the first count, it says that, since the Sixth Environmental Action Programme covers the period to 2011, any developments on pesticides have implications for enlargement, and that the candidate countries should be closely involved. It also comments that, although the intensity of agricultural production, and hence pesticide use, in many areas of the candidate countries is low, they do face problems over eliminating stockpiles of obsolete pesticide waste, and will require technical, financial and logistical support. More generally, the Communication stresses the need for Community action on pesticides to take international work into consideration, and it draws attention to a number of relevant areas. These include a new convention on discharge of persistent organic pollutants, various conventions (OSPAR, Helsinki and Barcelona) on the protection of the marine environment, the Rotterdam Convention on prior informed consent, an OECD pesticide risk reduction project, and the work of the Codex Alimentarius.
    3. The Government's view

    4. In his Explanatory Memorandum of 19 July 2002, the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty) says that the Communication makes it clear that the eventual thematic strategy is likely to be a bundle of measures including national action, new Community measures, and existing Community measures, and that, although the Commission recognises that some actions are better carried out at national level, the Government will be raising the issue of subsidiarity in its consultations. He adds that it will consider the eventual proposal against the need to keep Community and national actions in proportion.
    5. That said, the Minister indicates that the Government supports the need for such a strategy, and in particular for it to complement the existing legislation by concentrating on the intermediate stages of the pesticide use chain. He adds that the UK is able to support most of the Commission's analysis, and that many of the proposals are sensible. However, issues which the Government believes require further consideration include the role of financial instruments, including levies and harmonisation of VAT; the relationship between the Communication and reform of the CAP, and the fit between the various measures proposed, so as to avoid any overlaps.
    6. Since the Communication does not itself contain any proposals for action, the Minister has not supplied a Regulatory Impact Assessment, and he also says that the financial implications would need to be considered as and when further proposals are available. However, he will be providing later this autumn under cover of a Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum an analysis of the responses to the consultation which the Government intends to launch.
    7. Conclusion

    8. The use of pesticides is clearly a subject of some public concern, and we think it right, therefore, that the House should have the opportunity to make a contribution to the development of any new Community strategy in this area. The only question is whether it would be better to do so at this essentially formative stage, or to wait another year or so until the Commission has come forward with more specific measures. On balance, we see some merit in the first approach, and we are consequently recommending this document for debate in European Standing Committee A.


1   This is a generic term, which covers all products which kill pests. Within this overall definition, plant protection products (PPP) cover agricultural use, whilst biocidal products are used for non-agricultural purposes. This Communication deals solely with the former. Back

2   (22132) 5771/01; see HC 28-xi (2000-01), paragraph 5 (4 April 2001), HC 152-i (2001-02), paragraph 3 (18 July 2001) and HC 152-ii (2001-02), paragraph 2 (17 October 2001). Official Report, European Standing Committee A, 16 January 2002. Back

3   (20879) 5257/00; see HC 23-viii (1999-2000), paragraph 16 (9 February 2000). Back

4   OJ No. L.230, 19.8.91, p.1.  Back

5   Council Directives 76/895/EEC, 86/362/EEC. 86/363/EEC and 90/642/EEC. Back

6   Directive 2000/60. OJ No. L.327, 22.12.00, p.1. Back

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