Pesticides: cause for alarm

From October 1st 2016, the sale of Roundup (Croatian Cidokor) and 11 other similar glyphosate-based herbicides was banned in the European Union. The ban should serve as a wake-up call to all users, supporters and promoters of pesticides.

Handle the earth with respect and care. It will pay dividends. Handle the earth with respect and care. It will pay dividends. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

The ban came under a Commission Implementing Regulation dated 1st August 2016 (ref. 2016/1313). Although glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicides concerned, the ban was specifically related to formulants, the substances with which glyphosate is mixed for use. The Croatian Ministry of Agriculture announced the ban on its website on September 20th and 21st 2016. Registration holders were obliged to inform distributors, and ensure the removal of all stocks from the market by December 31st 2016.

Cause for celebration? Well...

When a substance on public sale and in common use is found to be dangerous, the normal practice is for that substance to be recalled from all suppliers and users immediately. Further sale and use of the substance is prohibited as soon as the ban comes into force. The manufacturer is usually ultimately responsible for the collection and (safe) disposal of the recalled product. A system is put into place nationwide, also publicized and enforced, to ensure that the hazardous product is removed from the public domain in the shortest possible time. None of this happened in the case of Roundup, which continued to feature large among the world's freely available pesticides. Yet Roundup is undeniably dangerous. In 2017 the French Environment Agency granted approval for Roundup Pro 360. This led to a Court case in Lyon, with the judge ruling on 15th January 2019 that the authorization should be annulled and the product banned.

Pesticide bans in practice in Croatia

Responsibility for overseeing the approvals, sales, distribution and use of pesticides in Croatia is shared between Ministries.

The Ministry of Agriculture is the main source of information for people who use so-called 'plant protection' chemical poisons. It has a search section on its website which provides information on all the 'plant protection' pesticides which are approved for use in Croatia. Many of the pesticides are allowed only for use by professionals who have completed the necessary training. The search section identifies individual pesticides, with information about ingredients, usage and approval status, There are various options for searching. The simplest version is to type in the name of the product you are interested in, stating whether it is for professional or non-professional use. Under the search button ('Traži') the link to the product is shown.

How does the listing system work in practice?

Almost two months after the EU ban on sales of Roundup /Cidokor came into force, the Ministry of Agriculture still listed three Cidokor products without any obvious warning about the ban. Cidokor was in the sub-list of products which had lost their licence, which is a separate search (note: the sub-list is no longer available in 2021). But anyone looking up Cidokor without knowing it was banned would have no reason to search beyond the information page, which was showing the approvals as if they were still in force.

From the Ministry of Agriculture listing, 29th November 2016.

Under its English name, however, Roundup carried a warning in red letters that it was no longer approved. For Roundup Biactive, the red-letter heading stated that existing stocks could be used and sold up to the 'permitted date', which in the following paragraph was given as January 1st 2017, while stocks could be held in store until 1st January 2018. Odd, given that the product approval, first granted in Croatia in 1999, ran out on 1st July 2016. So Roundup Biactive went into extra time as a result of the EU ban.

Another example is the insecticide Pyrinex 48EC. The approval for Pyrinex 48EC in Croatia was granted from September 25th 2015 and was due to last until January 31st 2019, for professional use only. However, the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had been giving increasing warnings about the health hazards relating to Pyrinex's active substance Chlorpyrifos since 2002. A review in 2014, updated in 2015 detailed the unacceptable effects on human (especially children's) health, birds, fish and earthworms. Following a review by the European Union, the United Kingdom issued a partial ban in September 2016. However, like Roundup, it continued to be produced, sold and used around the world. In August 2018, a Federal Appeals Court in the United States ordered a ban on Chlorpyrifos.

Pyrinex 48EC was added to the Croatian Ministry of Agriculture's list of disallowed pesticides on March 25th 2016.The initial search for Pyrinex 48EC at the time of writing threw up two links: only one carried the red-letter warning that it has been de-registered, while the other did not. In fact, Pyrinex 48EC continued to be used in Croatia until 30th Jaruary 2019, when Chlorpyrifos was finally banned in the EU.

From the Ministry of Agriculture list of approved pesticides, November 2016.

The list of chemical pesticides which were no longer registered in Croatia dated back to 2011 on the Ministry of Agriculture website, and provided the following numbers: in 2016, 38 chemical pesticides were disallowed or de-registered up to the end of November; in 2015, 32; 17 on 2014; 260 in 2013; 96 in 2012; and 13 in 2011.

The Ministry of Agriculture granted the approval for Pyrinex 48EC at a time when the product's primary ingredient was already the subject of major concern by the very authority which had previously deemed it safe. It took a long time for the ban to be established, and there was still time allowed for stocks to be used up.

The question of leftover stocks

Despite time being allowed to sell and use up spare stocks when a chemical substance is banned, there is always at least some left over. What happens to those? Are they collected and 'safely' destroyed? Tragically, there is shamefully little provision for safe disposal either of unwanted unused pesticides or empty pesticide packaging, especially on Hvar. Much of it ends up in the communal rubbish or worse still in the environment, contrary to existing laws.

Hazardous contents, hazardous packaging. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

The glyphosate story

Monsanto's Roundup was first marketed in 1974, although its active ingredient glyphosate had been discovered in 1950. In the United States, its approval in 1974 was for 'industrial non-crop use in agriculture'. Its permitted applications were quickly extended, and by 1980 Roundup was a worldwide bestselling weedkiller. Monsanto's US patent on glyphosate was allowed to expire in 2000. By 2012 the EU had registered some 2000 glyphosate-based herbicides made by many different companies for use on croplands. Given the unwelcome presence of glyphosate in human urine, one could be forgiven for calling the ban on just 12 glyphosate herbicides as 'pissing in the wind'. Farcical but not funny.

Glyphosate's approval has always been the subject of controversy, sparking concern and criticism among independent scientists and environmentalists. Industry-sponsored unpublished 'safety' studies, conducted on animals, formed the main supporting evidence for official approval in the United States, Europe and consequently around the world. An independent study published in 2012 showed that important data indicating glyphosate's ill-effects had been suppressed from the evidence used for approval. When the EU was asked in 2010 by Monsanto to re-approve the use of glyphosate in herbicides, the permit was due to expire in 2012. However, the review was delayed until 2015, with a further extension until June 2016. In the meantime, EU Parliamentarians recommended a total ban on the substance, but were thwarted by the European Commission, which initially proposed extending the permit for a further 15 years, a demand which was subsequently reduced to 18 months. Meanwhile, European Parliamentarians agreed to the Commission's proposals to ban the co-formulant POE-tallowamine, resulting in the ban on Roundup sales. A European Citizens' Initiative publicized as the  'Stop Glyphosate Campaign' garnered over a million signatures in record time in 2017, but the main demand was rejected by the European Commission out of hand. However, there were two positive outcomes from the campaign, with legislation proposed to ensure more transparency in the approvals process for pesticides, and more reliance on independent studies regarding the safety or otherwise of pesticides (as opposed to the present system of primarily accepting industry-funded studies). The new Regulation covering these issues was published on September 6th 2019, coming into force 20 days later, and was due to come into effect after 18 months, on 27th March 2021.

Almost simultaneously with the EU's ban on Roundup in 2016, the American EPA approved a dicamba-based herbicide developed by Monsanto for use on its next generation of biotech (genetically modified) crops. The new herbicide was developed in response to the increasing problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds. As dicamba had allegedly caused serious environmental problems in its previous use, the approval of the new version was greeted with widespread concern.

Powerful lobbying, forceful marketing

The agrochemical industry is rich and powerful. It is exceptionally skilful in dominating the market, quelling opposition, and recruiting support from politicians and scientists. Pesticide advertising is widespread and shamelessly misleading. The agrochemical companies have succeeded in creating the ultimate spin in relation to proofs of safety. One of their biggest promotional successes was to re-define poisonous pesticides as 'plant protectors'. That euphemism has helped deflect attention from pesticides as poisons and potential health destroyers.

The 'Glyphosate Facts' website: a smooth, attractive cover-up?

At the end of November 2016, nearly two months after the EU ban on Roundup sales, the 'Glyphosate Facts' website made no mention of it. The Monsanto website, which covers most of the world, with Monsanto news given in a multitude of languages, was equally silent on the subject.

Concerned independent scientists, regulators and environmentalists are forced to argue the toss with a tireless, well-oiled propaganda machine. Arguments are bandied to and fro over decades. Meanwhile, untold damage is being done to land, sea and air, and human health problems are multiplying.

Caution should prevail

Pesticides should be proven beyond doubt to be completely safe before being approved for use. Most consumers believe that approved pesticides have been proved safe. This is not so. The evidence that they are not safe has been sidelined by the industry in many different ways. The burden of proof has been thrown on to the people opposing the development and use of dangerous pesticides. To make their task more difficult, words are being twisted to create impossible conditions for scientists seeking to establish risk evaluations and ill-effects. This was especially true when Euro-MPs were due to consider the European Commission's proposals for identifying and regulating hormone disrupting chemicals in December 2016.

Pesticide safety is always in doubt. As they are poisons, pesticides cannot be tested on humans. The human testing is done once the pesticides are put into use. We are the guinea pigs in practice (following in from the tragic dogs, rabbits, rats, chickens and countless other animals who have been tortured with force-fed pesticides for the sake of 'proving' the agrochemical industry's point). There is no such thing as 'sustainable use' of pesticides. For safety's sake, pesticides should not be used. That is the precautionary principle. The agrochemical industry has turned the precautionary principle on its head. You can read about pesticide regulation and its limitations in our article 'Pesticides, Laws and Permits'.

The organic way: rotavating for clean soil between vines. Photo Vivian Grisogono

The very limited EU restriction on a few glyphosate-based herbicides was a minimal response to long-held, well-founded, far-reaching concern. Its most useful effect will be to make people realise that dangerous substances are being used long-term in our environment, causing damage on many levels, including in the human and animal food chain. Proper safeguards are lacking; and the regulatory bodies are not dealing with the potential hazards effectively.

The fact that previously approved chemical pesticides are subsequently disallowed, especially after being in use for several years, should ring alarm bells round the world. Clearly there are deep flaws in the regulatory system which are putting public health at risk.

Do chemical pesticides work?

The short answer is no. Or more precisely, only in the short-term. Chemical herbicides have resulted in the proliferation of 'superweeds'; chemical rodenticides have been behind the rise of 'super-rats'; and following widespread use of chemical insecticides there are ever-increasing numbers of mosquitoes, and even 'supermoths'. These results are all the more unsatisfactory when set alongside the untold collateral damage to the environment and human health. The bottom line is that healthy crops can only grow in uncontaminated soil.

Freedom of choice

While the EU has to approve active substances in products such as pesticides, it is up to individual Member States to allow them to be sold on their markets. Member States have the right to 'grant, refuse or restrict the use of a specific product'. In July 2016, Malta became the first EU country taking steps to ban glyphosate-based herbicides outright, with many localities on Malta having already done so. Since then other countries have initiated bans on glyphosate, fierce opposition from the agrochemical industry. It would be great news if local authorities in Croatia followed their lead. Even better if the central government took the initiative of outlawing pesticides and promoting organic agriculture and proper sustainable care for the environment. If they did, there would certainly be significant savings in health expenditure.

Even if the powers-that-be do not want to lead the way, individuals can achieve much. If end-users stop buying chemical pesticides, the market will disappear. The EU ban on a handful of pesticides will achieve precious little in itself. But it might serve to alert even just a few people to the harm being done. It might persuade some to give up using pesticides. If so, it will have done a deal of good.

BEWARE, BE AWARE!

© Vivian Grisogono MA(Oxon) 2016, updated August 2021

 

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