Severe procedures ensure safe crop protection products

‘Pesticides eradicate our bees’, ‘Glyphosate is carcinogenic’ and ‘Toxic pesticides cocktail is present on our fruit’. These are only a few of the blunt headlines concerning crop protection products. Is it rightful to fear these products or are they not as bad as people seem to think? Prof. Pieter Spanoghe from Ghent University and Maarten Trybou from the Federal Department of Public Health in Belgium give some guidance.

Since the beginning of agriculture, crops are being nibbled, infected and tormented by insects, molds and wild plants. To eliminate these malefactors, farmers have been using crop protection products for centuries. Since the forties, these products have been intensively used and have an important impact on the food supply. However, these products can also damage human health and the environment. The hazardous effect of the first generation crop protection products was discovered only a long time after its first use. Due to the lack of alternative products, farmers kept on using some of the harmful products for years.

Extensive control

Nowadays, an extensive control of a new crop protection product is conducted before it can be placed on the European market. The product has to be in accordance with the legislation determined by the European Union. These laws protect the environment and human health. “Every crop protection product is tested on laboratory animals. This study takes two years, to assess whether the second generation laboratory animals experience any health effects. By using computer models combined with a safety factor, we calculate a safe limit for human beings.” says Maarten Trybou, Head of the Department of Plant Protection and Fertilizers at the FOD Public Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment in Belgium. This department has to determine whether a product is allowed to be sold or not by assessing the results of an extensive investigation. However, these investigations are financed by the company that wants to place a crop protection product on the market. So the question arises: “Is this a conflict of interest?” “No,” says Trybou, “the research has to comply with a series of quality criteria that are internationally determined by the Organization of Economical Collaboration and Development and can only be conducted by independent certified laboratories.”

Fast degrading products

When a product has passed this test, the approval does not last for an unlimited amount of time. “The European regulation is becoming more strict every year. To keep up with new regulations and scientific findings, the admissions have to be renewed every ten years.” says Trybou. The European regulation does not allow substances that do not degrade fast enough in the soil. “Slowly degrading substances are only allowed when there is a well-founded reason to use them” adds professor Pieter Spanoghe, from the Laboratory of Crop Protection Chemistry at the Faculty of Bio-science Engineering (Ghent University). The crop protection products that are now emerging in groundwater, have often been forbidden for years. So why are they still present in the environment? These slow-degrading products percolate together with the rain through the soil. Once these products have reached a depth of five centimeters, there are no longer microbes present to enhance their breakdown. It takes ten to twenty years before these substances reach groundwater. Modern crop protection products have to degrade much faster. According to the legislation, half of the amount has to be broken down after one season.

Robust scientific research

The glyphosate debate, whether the herbicide glyphosate is carcinogenic or not, has made the effect of crop protection products on human health a hot topic again. According to professor Spanoghe, there is no reason to worry. “The majority of the harmful products belongs to the past. The government takes such severe measures when it comes to these products that, to my opinion, we are safe.” Trybou confirms:“ As soon as there is any indication of a product that can harm the farmers’ or consumers’ health, it is immediately taken off the market. Our toxicologists test the scientific value of all studies. An enormous amount of research is published, but rarely it is elaborated enough to prove something. In most cases, the effect of several substances is investigated whereby the effect of the separate products remains unknown. On the other hand, we do have ample robust studies for each individual crop protection product. Based on these studies, we decide to allow or reject a product.” Spanoghe: “In twenty years, we can look back and wonder if it was really as bad as some people seem to think. Anyway, I eat my apple without removing the peel.”

Source: (in Dutch)