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Balance elusive in EU pesticide debate

Wheat field in Germany (2008)

By Dominic Hughes
BBC News, Brussels

Chemicals which can cause serious illnesses have been banned from use in pesticides by MEPs in Strasbourg.

The 22 substances are linked to cancer, can damage the reproductive and nervous systems, and also disrupt hormones.

The argument over their use has been raging for years, and the battle to get the ban approved in the European Parliament saw a huge lobbying campaign by farming groups as well as the chemical companies that manufacture pesticides.

Dire warnings were issued about the collapse in Europe's agricultural production should the legislation go ahead - a 100% fall in carrot production in the UK alone; a devastating effect on pea production; problems for farmers growing wheat and potatoes.

In turn, said the farmers, this would lead to rising prices, just as consumers are looking down the barrel of a nasty recession and concern over world food shortages is growing.

In fact, most farmers would like to work towards reducing pesticide use, as it is an expensive business.

Picky consumers

In the heart of Belgium's fruit-growing region of Limburg, Luc Bels and his family have been growing apples, pears and cherries since the 1950s.

Luc Bels
We need some plant protection products, because we need to produce a high quality of apples and pears
Belgian farmer Luc Bels

They have around 100 hectares of orchards, which in a good year may produce more than 4m kilograms of fruit.

In a large shed behind the house, crates of autumn apples are being carefully washed and sorted.

Mr Bels says their most important product is the unblemished fruit that attracts the best price - the only kind the picky European consumer will buy.

Over the past few years, they have cut the number of pesticides they use, instead encouraging the natural predators that eat the insects attacking the fruit.

But, walking through his snow-covered orchard, Mr Bels says there are still some pesticides that he has to use - and the new laws will hit him hard.

"It's going to have a great impact. Of course we've come a long way - we use far less products than we did 15 years ago," he says.

"But still we need some plant protection products [pesticides], because we need to produce a high quality of apples and pears. The consumer wants good quality, a high quality without [blemishes] on the fruit."

'Too far'

One particular bug-bear is the change in the legislation from an assessment of risk to one of hazard - in other words, if there is any threat to health whatsoever, a pesticide will be banned.

Crop-spraying tractor in UK
Farmers say products used safely for years could be banned

Neil Parrish is a British Conservative MEP, chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development in the European Parliament - and a farmer.

He says the new legislation is badly thought through.

"I think it goes too far," he says. "I think it's taking chemicals off the market which, if they are used properly, are not a problem.

"It's a little bit like in our kitchen - if we use too much salt, or ate too much salt, it would either do us a lot of harm or actually kill us."

He adds: "These chemicals have a hazard, but if they are properly used under a risk basis, and there are proper withdrawal periods, then we can grow our crops."

Delayed implementation

But campaigners against pesticides say the farmers and big agribusinesses have exaggerated their case.

Henriette Christensen
It's difficult to prove that one pesticide is causing you to die in 20 years' time from cancer because you're not only eating one pesticide
Henriette Christensen
Pesticide Action Network

At the home of Henriette Christensen, of the group Pesticide Action Network, she is serving her children dinner - on the menu tonight, organic corn-on-the-cob.

Perhaps that is not surprising, given her concern about the amount of chemicals we eat in everyday food.

"It's difficult to prove that one pesticide is causing you to die in 20 years' time from cancer because you're not only eating one pesticide," she says.

"You're eating a lot of different pesticides. You have a combination of pesticides. On average, there are 50 different pesticides in a bunch of grapes."

Some campaigners say the new laws do not go far enough - and Ms Christensen for one believes this is just the beginning.

And there will still be arguments over exactly which specific products will be banned.

Most will not be affected until 2013 and, if no alternative product exists, farmers will be able to carry on using them for another five years.

But with both sides accusing the other of overstating the dangers there is still no agreement on the balance between total consumer protection - and acceptable risk.

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