European Commission puts arable crop protection at risk

The European Commission has alienated cynical arable farmers, says Richard Wright. It’s dug an even deeper hole for its failure to back science over the re-licensing of glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, published plans that could take a quarter of crop protection products off the market, and there are question marks over simplification plans for greening.

With no compromise between member states over glyphosate, the Commission was left with no option other than to seek to force through the decision itself. At issue is the validity of a single report suggesting a theoretical risk between the widely used herbicide and cancer. The absence of a qualified majority from member states underlines that science-based decision making is impossible.

A big question mark will remain over glyphosate, and its critics will ensure its use remains controversial. This reflects the Commission’s inability to impose a realistic risk/reward calculation, and its failure to recognise the importance of having a globally competitive agricultural industry.

A bigger issue is action against plant protection products that contain so-called endocrine disruptors. These are products that essentially have the potential to interfere with human hormones, and so affect health. The Commission has been pressed into action by a European Court decision that was critical of delays in delivering legislation. It’s now unveiled its plans, although it will be a long and complicated journey from this to legislation. In doing so it boasted about creating the highest standards in the world for the environment and human health – but said nothing about how these plans would affect the competitive position of European agriculture.

Its draft legislation includes plans to tighten up rules on imports by reducing the maximum residue limits allowed for the banned products, but this is still a lose-lose for European agriculture. Many familiar products are in the firing line, and around 1,300 plant protection products could be removed from the market, in many cases with no replacement, since the cost of developing new products for a limited EU market would be prohibitive.

This is a victory for the environmental lobby, but while the Commission president, Jean Claude Juncker, was preening himself for such forward thinking plans, he was ignoring criticism from industry groups. They’ve deemed the plans unworkable, warned of the impact on Europe’s ability to compete globally, and have expressed scepticism about the Commission’s ability to restrict imports – not least because of the EU’s reliance on imported products, including soya.

To be fair to the Commission it can, at least, this time claim it has followed science in selecting the endocrine disruptor products, but it’s failed again to analyse their risk/ reward ratio. Key to this is whether a small theoretical gain for human health justifies undermining food security and the competitive position of agriculture. This is a question the Commission can’t ignore, but it’s choosing to do so, despite industry, members of the European parliament and scientists urging it to think again about this proposal.

On greening there’s no question that there’s a need for simplification. Arable farmers have been patient, given that plans have been delayed long after they emerged for other sectors. Farmers believe the policy is fundamentally flawed, but the Commission’s unlikely to go beyond a bit of tweaking around the edges.

Even that would be positive, and all the necessary stops need to be pulled out so that decisions can be taken in plenty of time to have them implemented for 2017. This would bring some relief to arable farmers, but it won’t compensate for the political undermining of their competitiveness by a European Commission that’s too weak to stand up to those pursuing a green agenda.

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