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EU's pesticides ban raises issues

15 January 09 00:13 GMT

By James Melik
Business reporter, BBC World Service

The European parliament's vote to ban the use of some pesticides has annoyed some farmers who say it will harm production and force prices up, though environmentalists insist it will improve the health of producers and consumers.

Supporters of pesticides say that they are fast-acting, they work against a specific pest, they are easy to obtain and apply, and they may increase crop production by reducing crop losses.

Opponents say that they may damage the environment, harm people who use them and kill non-target species, and they can drift from their original point of application.

Caroline Boin of the Campaign for Fighting Diseases says, in an interview with BBC World Business News, that the benefits of pesticides had not been taken into account when the EU made its decision.

"One thing which has been overlooked is the damage this could pose to fight against vector-borne diseases such as malaria," she says.

"There is little motivation for the industry to produce products just to fight malaria, which kills over one million people a year.

"We fear that supplies will go down and prices will rise and it will also reduce incentives for research and development in the future.

"Public health insecticides represent only 1% of the pesticide market and manufacturers are very dependent on the sales of pesticides in the agricultural market."

Controversial alternatives

Her view is mirrored by Dr Colin Ruscoe, chairman of the British Crop Production Council, who says pesticides used to fight malaria are in effect spin-offs from agricultural products.

The EU ruling will ban specific active ingredients, rather than their formulation.

However, there are many examples where a product in isolation is extremely dangerous, yet safe when used appropriately, he says.

Dr Ruscoe points out that Botox is one of the most potent neuro-toxins, and yet, in the right doses, people willingly use it for cosmetic purposes.

Likewise, in a cup of coffee there are 200 known carcinogens, but a healthy liver is able to cope with them.

"If farmers are forced to stop using certain products, crop yields would halve," he insists.

"There would be such huge losses in the yields of potatoes, carrots, peas and parsnips that it would become uneconomical to farm them."

Although no company is prepared to say so publicly, it is unlikely that they will have a budget for researching and developing public health products, according to Dr Ruscoe.

"They will want to focus on markets where they can make a profit," Dr Ruscoe says, "and that includes moving into genetically modified foods."

Medical setback

Banning certain pesticides might be a good idea in Europe, but it might not be so beneficial for people in Africa.

According to the World Health Organisation, about 40% of the world's population, mostly those living in the poorest countries, are at risk of malaria.

Of these 2.5 billion people at risk, more than 500 million become severely ill with malaria every year and more than one million die from the effects of the disease.

It is an especially serious problem in Africa, where 20% of childhood deaths are caused by the effects of the disease and where a child dies from malaria every 30 seconds.

It is impossible to calculate the economic costs to countries affected, but figures released by the Roll Back Malaria partnership show that more than $1.5bn was spent on implementing anti-malarial programmes throughout Africa in 2007.

A discussion on this subject was broadcast on World Business News dated 13 Jan 09

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