Safety assurances rest on inadequate data, warns report on crop spraying

23 September 2005

Ministers are being misled over pesticide health risks, according to a government-commissioned report. There is an urgent need for more research in this area, the authors conclude.

The royal commission on environmental pollution, which compiled the report, recommends tighter monitoring and training for farmers using pesticides, and a shake up in the governance covering their use. Policy formulation should be separated from policy delivery, it urges.

'In the light of the uncertainty in respect to both the health effects of pesticides and the exposure of residents to them, we've been surprised at the level of certainty expressed in advice to ministers and the level of assurance given to the public about the safety of residents and bystanders potentially exposed to agricultural pesticides,' said commission member Paul Ekin, professor of sustainable development at the University of Westminster.

Residents living near fields should be given advance warning of any crop spraying, including what pesticides are used, recommends the commission. 

Pesticide manufacturers are not being asked to change their products - yet. The report focuses on establishing scientific evidence for ill effects of pesticides. 'If it were to become apparent what the health effects were and what pesticides were causing them then we'd go back up the chain and say [to manufacturers] these pesticides need to be reformulated,' said Ekin.

The report contains much criticism of the industry, concedes Julian Little, spokesperson for the Crop Protection Association. 'We clearly want any [government] response to this report to be proportionate and practical,' he told Chemistry World. 'Without pesticides we would not be able to supply high quality and affordable food all year round,' he said. 'Regulations always have and will continue to evolve and the companies will evolve with them.' Katharine Sanderson