How an EU guideline prevents the substitution of risky pesticides

Farmers across Europe, from Sweden to Italy, are spreading seeds for their winter barley these days. Many of them will also spray herbicides with flufenacet – an active substance that is supposed to destroy unwanted grasses. However, its degradation product trifluoroacetate (TFA) is also making its way into the water.

There, it creates big problems: TFA can pollute waterways, is toxic to algae, and could also be harmful to mammals. Studies on this are ongoing. 

Despite the risks, sales of herbicides containing flufenacet doubled between 2014 and 2020, data from the German Environmental Agency shows. 

Knowing this, the EU has placed flufenacet on a list of potentially hazardous pesticide active substances because of its “unfavorable properties”. The use of these so-called substitution candidates is not prohibited. However, EU member states are supposed to replace the 53 substances – wherever possible – with harmless alternatives.

Since 2015, this framework intended to stimulate the use of alternatives to toxic pesticides – so far, this plan has failed, according to a new report by Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe, and shared with Investigate Europe in advance. Not a single substitution candidate has been replaced by a non-chemical alternative so far. 

The report comes at a time when there is fierce debate within the EU about how to regulate pesticide use. As Investigate Europe documented this summer, the massive use of pesticides has destroyed ecosystems across Europe. As with dangerous substitutes, the EU has also suppressed the problem elsewhere. Now, Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans wants to solve the problem with a new regulation. But chemical companies and the agricultural lobby have rallied in opposition against the plans. Among other tactics, they use the war in Ukraine to argue against reforms and thus a reduction in the use of pesticides. Their logic: abolishing pesticides would risk lower crop yields at a time when global food security is threatened by war. Scientists, meanwhile, fear that continued unchecked pesticide use threatens lasting food security.

The all-encompassing nature of the pesticide problem is also shown by the Europe-wide use of the potentially dangerous substitute candidates. In Germany, 36 of the 53 active substances on the substitution list are contained in pesticides that are currently authorised. In Austria, there are products containing one of 37 of these substances on the market. This makes a total of 353 pesticides, according to the environmental organisation Global 2000, the Austrian partner of PAN Europe. Almost one in five pesticides currently approved for EU use contains an active ingredient on the substitution list.  

Hungary uses the most substitution candidates with 48 active substances, Denmark by far the least with only 15. 

Why did the EU initiative, which was supposed to be central to pesticide regulation, remain so ineffective? According to the PAN report, a little-known body could be responsible: the Plant Protection Organisation for Europe and the Mediterranean (EPPO). This is an international organisation with 52 member states, including all of the EU. In 2011, EPPO experts – who are nominated by the different countries – produced guideline on behalf of the EU to help member states implement the substitution principle and find alternatives for risky substances.

But in fact, precisely this document leads to substitution candidates not being replaced, PAN Europe and Global 2000 argue in their study. The reason for this is the guideline’s wording. It states that “sufficient chemical diversity” is necessary to prevent pests from developing resistance. The argument: a diversity of modes of action against a target pest is key, EPPO told Investigate Europe via email.

This argument is also reflected in the guide, which is intended to help authorities apply the substitution principle. In practice, however, the environmental organisations say, this leads to assessments of potential substitution ending before non-chemical alternatives are considered.

“Thus, the guidance encourages the authorisation of more and more toxic pesticide products,” the PAN report states. The EU Commission admitted in 2018 that the current regulation was not working. “The rules for active substances eligible for substitution are ineffective and inefficient and have not delivered the expected results.” However, according to the Commission, the reason is not the EU guideline, but a lack of alternatives. The Commission has not updated its policy. 

Biologist Dave Goulson, on the other hand, argues there is no lack of alternatives. Rather, the Sussex University professor says, there is a lack of support for organic or integrated farming, where pesticides are used as a last resort. 

“At the moment we have a farming system where most of the advice given to farmers is given to them by agronomists who work for pesticide companies,” Goulson told Investigate Europe. It is therefore not surprising that they see pesticides as the first and often only solution. “There are ways to greatly reduce the need for chemical pesticides,” he added. The only thing is that this requires knowledge that is missing on many farms.

Therefore, on large areas of European agricultural land, farmers continue to work with chemical substances instead of biological methods. In addition to TFA residues in water, PAN Europe also found an increasing contamination with substitution candidates in various types of fruit. For apples, for example, it rose EU-wide from 17% in 2011 to 34% in 2020. For pears, it rose from 26% to 49% over the same period, and for grapes from 31% to 46%. 

“These data do not indicate that the substitution principle is working,” says Helmut Burtscher-Schaden of Global 2000, adding that he is convinced of the opposite.