COMMENT: Growing regulatory and political pressure for more sustainable agriculture in Europe is causing concern for local farmers.
Restrictive regulatory processes and political decision-making based on gaining votes, rather than good science, mean very few new active substances are introduced.
A gradual loss of these substances will see farmers struggling to control pest populations in coming years.
Trade barriers, threats to intellectual property, hazard-based assessments, and political change are all causing regulatory uncertainty. With these drivers, an uncertain future prevails.
Recently adopted European Union standards on endocrine disruptors resulted in complaints to the World Trade Organization from trading partners such as Canada, Australia and the United States.
The criteria are deficient due to being based on hazards - without considering exposure – ignoring the principal of sound risk assessment. As a result, more substances could be banned, leading to restrictions in trade. Some of New Zealand's fresh produce exported into Europe could come under greater scrutiny, due to a reduction in maximum residue levels (MRLs).
It is critical that decision-making on MRLs and import tolerances are based on complete risk assessments. Currently, if a compound is identified as an endocrine disruptor or meets other hazard-based cut-offs, such as for reproductive toxicants, the classification decisions trigger regulatory non-approval and default MRLs, regardless of the actual risks.
Farmers support strict pesticide regulation and are well aware of the need to adopt a range of measures to discourage the growth of pest populations. This keeps pesticides and other interventions to economically justified levels and minimises risks to people and the environment. But taking valuable tools away from farmers without sound risk-based science is ludicrous. Withdrawing products is sensible when it's due to outdated chemistry, but not when it is brought about by political pressure, media 'untruths', or misinterpreted assessments.
Regulation needs to focus on science and safety, not political popularity. Europe's conservative approach to approving new agrichemicals is longstanding, but the current regulatory environment is out of control.
To add fuel to the fire, the European Commission is initiating a legislative proposal to make scientific assessments and decision-making on approving pesticides more transparent – mainly in response to the renewal of glyphosate.
The Commission is proposing a rule-change to make scientific studies publicly available, so people can understand how far-reaching decisions to authorise or ban substances are made.
Political responsibility and greater transparency are two sides of the same coin. The problem is that it eventuates from pressure by activist groups, rather than sound risk assessment. The additional information will inadvertently give competitors information on what products are being introduced into the European market, earlier and in quite specific terms. This could erode confidentiality and allow competitors to undermine the new products via copycat formulations.
Additional market concerns in Europe include delays in the approval of crop protection products at European Member State level and the increasing costs of EU authorisation. The political sympathy towards biological and non-chemical options, and reducing the use of conventional solutions, is leading manufacturing companies to focus on markets outside of the European Union.
A highly politicised environment, with increasingly conservative evaluations by regulators (and some Member States), means the future of many products already in use is unclear.
A major concern is New Zealand regulators adopting EU practices for assessing products. Agcarm and its member companies are keeping a close watch on the situation. We remain focused on stewardship and ensuring that regulatory processes and decisions are sensible.
Sensible regulatory systems allow the use of agrichemicals that are proven to be safe, environmentally-friendly, effective and targeted. This allows a variety of new products that offer pest control solutions for farmers - now and into the future.
- Mark Ross is chief executive of Agcarm, the industry association for companies which manufacture and distribute crop protection and animal health products.