The European Commission has found itself unable to secure the backing of member states for its proposals on endocrine disruptors, throwing the future of pesticides in the EU into doubt again.
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals which, at certain doses, can interfere with hormone systems. A number of important crop protection active substances could be defined as endocrine disruptors, but they are also found in plastics and cosmetics.
Environmental groups claim they pose a risk to human health.
A World Health Organisation (WHO) report from 2012 said there was “mounting evidence for effects of these chemicals on thyroid function, brain function, obesity and metabolism and insulin and glucose homeostasis”, and the Commission has been trying to regulate their use for several years.
The EU’s 2009 pesticides regulation states that active substances cannot be approved for use if they are endocrine disruptors, but in order to be considered as such, a definition needs to be decided upon.
The Commission hoped to get agreement from member states before Christmas on a definition and an exception to the rule banning them – once defined.
Because of the disagreement surrounding the proposal, the Commission chose to split it into two parts which would be voted on separately.
The first part would focus on a definition, which was controversial in itself. The European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) felt the chosen text would ban safe chemicals because it did not take potency – the scientific measurement of the chemical’s ability to produce a negative effect – into consideration.
Graeme Taylor, ECPA’s director of public affairs, said: “The Commission’s continued refusal to include hazard characterisation elements, in particular, potency, makes it impossible to see how they will identify those substances which pose a real concern from those that do not.”
Senior plant health adviser at the NFU, Emma Hamer, agreed: “The definition being proposed would not allow substances which are a real danger to be differentiated from those which are not.
“Exposure to hazard, potency, how often a chemical is used and what mitigation measures can be put in place all need to be taken into account.”
The second part of the proposal focused on the derogation, which was similarly divisive.
The European Parliament and a number of member states, particularly the Scandinavian countries, were unhappy with the exception, which would allow chemicals identified as endocrine disruptors to continue to be used if there was ‘negligible exposure’ to them.
They claimed the Commission was acting illegally in proposing an exception because it was only required by law to come up with a definition.
Environmental groups said the exception would allow harmful chemicals to stay on the market.
“We are not happy with legislation by derogation because it prevents a level playing field”, Ms Hamer said.
“Neonicotinoids are a good example of that; in some countries they have been used and in others they have not, but at least the derogation would have allowed for some discretion.
“We were more concerned the Commission separated the two because we could have been in a situation where the definition went forward but the derogation was blocked.”
No formal vote
In the event, the Commission did not call a formal vote on either part of the proposal as there was no qualified majority in the ‘indicative vote’.
A UK Crop Protection Association spokesperson said: “It is not surprising the Standing Committee was unable to reach a decision. There was already a great deal of confusion ahead of the meeting and the Commission’s decision to split the proposal into two only increased it.”
The issue will be discussed again on 22-23 January, but there is little hope of a quick fix as the EU has been trying to regulate for so long already.
Ms Hamer added: “The fact that agreement could not be reached shows nobody is happy. The NGOs are not happy, farmers are not happy, the Commission is not happy.
“We absolutely want to see safeguards for human health and the environment, but we also need to have plant protection products farmers can use.”