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Responsible Pesticide Use In The UK - The Voluntary Initiative

John Swire


Agriculture in the EU, from heavily subsidised cheap food at any cost during the years following the war, to a more market-led industry, has witnessed many changes, not least in the agrochemical sector.

Pressure from minority ‘green’ groups has become mainstream and in the wake of BSE and a devastating outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease in the UK in 2001, there has been a perceived need to make all forms of agriculture more accountable.


Despite their irrelevance to the two diseases above, pesticides appear to have borne the brunt of this change in attitude.

Successive legislation and guidelines have not only removed many pesticides from circulation, but also encouraged better practice from advisors, farmers and spray operators. This has deleted a large amount of wastage and bad practice.


The whole subject of more controlled pesticide use in the UK has been approached from two angles. Firstly, a complete review of all pesticides at an EU and member-state level has led to a massive reduction in the availability of a wide range of products. Secondly, a voluntary scheme known as the Voluntary Initiative has led to an increase in good practice throughout the industry.


The Plant Protection Products Directive (91/414/EEC) came into force in July 1993 and is implemented in the UK by the Plant Protection Products Regulations 2003. This Directive was specifically designed to harmonise the process for considering the safety of active substances at an EU level by establishing agreed criteria for considering the safety of those products. Product authorisation remains in the hands of the member states.


Barrie Hunt of Agriguard, an independent manufacturer and supplier of plant protection products explains, ‘The Directive provides for the establishment of a positive list of active substances (Annex 1) which have been shown to be without unacceptable risk to people or the environment. Active ingredients are added to Annex I as existing substances are reviewed and new ones authorised.’


For such substances to be considered for inclusion, the manufacturers have to provide a comprehensive dossier of data on the active ingredient and at least one product containing it. The data should include: the physical and chemical properties, the effects on target pests, a risk assessment of possible effects on workers, consumers, the environment, and non-target plants and animals.


According to Barrie Hunt, ‘This has had a dramatic effect on the industry. Manufacturers have looked closely at their products and taken a rational decision whether to provide the EU with costly and time-consuming research or to take them of the market.’


As a result of this, products such as Atrazine, an all-purpose weedkiller, have been taken off the market because the manufacturers could not provide data to support the product being used on hard surfaces such as pavements and thus any use would be severely limited.


The EU Directive split the products to be reviewed into three lists. Of the 90 products in List One, 27 were not supported by the manufacturer and so were taken off the market. List Two had 148 products of which 96 were not supported, 238 out of the 389 products so far tested in List Three, have not been supported. Once the active ingredients have made it to Annex I, products containing them can be considered for member state registration, which will place them on another list (Annex VI).


All this progress however, was still not enough to satisfy government and pressure groups. Under the principle of ‘polluter pays’ the industry was threatened with a pesticide tax. To counteract this, seven signatory organisations led by the Crop Protection Association, the main farmers’ unions and other industry organisations,
proposed the Voluntary Initiative (VI) to provide research, training, communication and stewardship to the industry. The cost of this to the crop protection industry is estimated to be £2.1 million, and a further £11 million per annum to implement the package of measures.


The Voluntary Initiative has a series of indicators to aim for which includes a 30% reduction in the frequency of detection of individual pesticides in untreated surface water at levels above 0.5 and 0.1 parts per billion. Other targets include benefiting biodiversity and changing behaviour patterns through membership of the VI and the training of distributors, advisors, farmers and operators. The plan is to have all the targets met by the end of this month, March 2006.


Protecting water quality has been at the heart of the VI since its launch. During 2004/5, the Environment Agency’s analysis of its national database reported a 23% decline in pesticide exceedances during 2003. The VI Steering Group reaffirmed 30% as its national target, with 50% set as a target for individual pilot catchments.


By March 2005, the National Register of Sprayer Operators achieved its 2005 target of 17,500 members, four months ahead of schedule and has introduced the concept of continuous professional development to those who apply pesticides on farms. When it comes to sprayers, half the area treated was covered by machines which had been tested under the National Sprayer Testing Scheme – exactly on target.


Patrick Goldsworthy, Voluntary Initiative manager for the Crop Protection Association says, ‘The Voluntary Initiative has proved to be a great success and we have already submitted proposals to Lord Bach in the government to extend the programme to a two-year rolling campaign from the end of March, to allow for all the good work in training and environmental programmes to keep running.’


The big test will come when the Voluntary Initiative reports to the Government at the end of this month with their first five-year report. Whether all the targets have been met is not yet known, but without doubt the Voluntary Initiative has had a major effect on pesticide use in the UK. While not actually deleting pesticide use there can be no doubt that it has successfully deleted many areas of bad practice thus making the rural environment a better and safer place.