Europe’s new pesticide regulations leave America in the dust

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The European Parliament’s environment committee voted last week in favor of new pesticide regulations that make America’s laws look a little, well, wimpy. The European package cracks down on chemicals that pose a risk to human health or the environment, setting strict guidelines that could result in bans on a large number of common agricultural products — up to 10 percent of insecticides, 10 percent of herbicides, and 32 percent of fungicides, according to estimates from the U.K.’s Pesticide Safety Directorate. The committee vote serves as a recommendation to the whole parliament, which will consider the proposal in January.

The new law prohibits chemicals that can cause cancer, disrupt hormones, or interfere with reproduction, whether or not they’re likely to do so when the pesticide is used correctly. Under U.S. law, on the other hand, such chemicals can still be approved as long as the potentially negative impacts seen in lab tests don’t show up in real world use. This leaves the U.S. door open for a long list of substances that may now be banned in Europe.

For instance, the popular herbicide 2,4-D, found in lawn care products like Acme Vegetation Killer and Scotts Lawn Weed Control, would likely not hold up under the new European standards, according to the Pesticide Safety Directorate analysis. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 46 million pounds of 2,4-D are used here annually.

Advocates for health and environmental protection are singing the EU’s praises, and members of parliament emphasized the urgent need for this kind of drastic step. According to a paper from the parliament’s Policy Department, “The health impacts associated with low-level chronic pesticide exposure are serious,” and the new regulations “reflect this and address the increasingly strong emerging evidence that certain chemicals can interact with the physiological systems of living organisms.”

So, less cancer and a healthier planet — sounds good, right? Not to everyone. Trade groups like the UK-based National Farmers Union and the European Crop Protection Association fear the new standards will leave them with nothing more than their garden hoes and prayers to sustain the region’s agriculture. Without powerful chemicals to protect their fields from weeds, fungi, and bugs, they say, crop yields will decline and food prices will rise. A study released by the European Centre for Agricultural, Regional and Environmental Policy Research in September predicted at least a 20 percent jump in the price of wheat if the legislation is enforced.

If the proposal gets through the European Parliament in January, anti-pesticide activists in the U.S. will certainly find themselves with a lot more ammunition: A whole continent says these products aren’t safe, so why does America? The chemical industry may have more to worry about in ’09 than a recession.

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