Brussels, 12 July 2006
What are pesticides?
The word "pesticide" is a very broad term used to describe all substances and products designed for controlling or killing pests - insects, weeds, rodents or fungi-, whether used in agriculture or to control the growth of plants on non-agricultural areas (plant protection products) or for other purposes (biocidal products, or biocides such as disinfectants, wood preservatives and antifouling paints).
Plant protection products (PPPs) are used mostly for agricultural purposes. Farmers use pesticides to maintain or further increase the amount and quality of yield by a particular crop. However, PPPs are also used by the public in homes and gardens, local authorities and leisure developments.
How do pesticides affect the environment?
Pesticides can be harmful to non-target organisms and have adverse effects on human health, wildlife and the environment. Misuses of pesticides, including overuses, may lead to chemical substances contaminating water, air and soil. They can provoke adverse effects on plants and wildlife and a loss of biodiversity in general.
Soil: Pesticides can persist in soil, where they may affect organisms that play a part in natural soil processes.
Water: Agricultural spray drift is the main source of contamination of surface waters. Careless operation of machinery can lead to over-spraying of ditches and contamination of fresh water by spray-drift, splashing and spillages when sprayers are filled, emptied and cleaned. Pesticides can contaminate water by running off the land into drainage channels and water bodies or moving through the soil into ground water.
Biodiversity: Drift and over-spraying can affect hedges, grass banks and therefore wildlife habitats. Scientists have linked declining numbers of farmland birds to the use of pesticides in intensive farming over the last 50 years. Many pesticides are toxic to fish and invertebrates. Certain pesticides can interfere with endocrine (hormone) systems in fish, for example, affecting fertility and reproduction and leading to development changes.
How do pesticides affect human health?
Direct contact with the pesticide itself may occur during the time of application of the chemical but indirect exposure is the most common form of contamination. Residents and bystanders can be indirectly exposed to pesticides via spray drift. So can consumers, via residual amounts of pesticides in agricultural products (fruits and vegetables) or water. The effects of indirect exposure can be worse for especially vulnerable population groups such as children, the elderly or other particular risk groups (chronically sick people for instance).
Long term exposure to pesticides can lead to serious disturbances to the immune system, sexual disorders, cancers, sterility, birth defects, damage to the nervous system and genetic damage.
What have the Member States and the EU done so far in relation to pesticides?
Policies and legislation on pesticides were first introduced at EU level in 1979. They focused on controlling the placing on the market of the most harmful pesticides and monitoring the residues at the end of the life cycle of pesticides.
A directive of 1991 on the placing on the market of PPPs seeks to prevent risks at source. It requires that a very comprehensive risk assessment is carried out for each active substance and for the products containing the substance, before they can be authorised for use.
A Regulation of 2005 sets maximum residue levels (MRLs) of active substances in plant and animal produce, with the aim of limiting the exposure of consumers at the end of the food chain. Monitoring compliance with MRLs is also an important tool to assess whether professional users in the EU (e.g. farmers) have correctly applied the recommendations and restrictions outlined in the authorisations of PPPs granted by the Member States.
Environmental concerns have been integrated into the various regulations which make up the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) since the mid-80s, especially with the 1992 reform of the CAP.
The Water Framework Directive of 2001 created a framework for assessing, monitoring and managing the ecological and chemical status of all surface and groundwater. The present limit value for active substances (0.1 µg/L) is considered as the maximum permissible concentration for defining groundwater chemical status.
The Directive of 1991 on hazardous waste establishes provisions for the collection of unused passed-expiry or banned pesticides.
Research activities aiming at reducing and improving the way pesticides are used have been supported for many years in the context of the EU Research and development Framework Programmes.
In 2003, the European Commission adopted a European Environment and Health Strategy. Its aim is to reduce diseases caused by environmental factors, including exposure to chemicals and pesticides. This strategy focuses on the most vulnerable groups in society, in particular children, and it should contribute to a more sustainable use of pesticides.
The use of pesticides is furthermore subject to a number of directives aiming at protecting the health and the safety of workers. However, these do not apply to the largest group of users – self-employed farmers.
Why is it necessary to have a Thematic Strategy on the sustainable use of pesticides?
Despite the existing policies and legislation, actual consumption and use of pesticides in the EU has not decreased between 1992 and 2003. In 2003, approximately 300,000 tons of active substances were sold in the EU. 5% of food and feed samples still contain unwanted residues of pesticides in quantities which exceed the maximum regulatory limits. This percentage has not declined between 1996 and 2003. According to the European water suppliers organisation, pesticide contamination of raw water is very severe in lowland rivers. A high proportion of this water is contaminated beyond the 0,1 µg/L threshold value and has to undergo pesticide removal treatment before it can be distributed as drinking water.
The current EU legal framework scarcely addresses the actual use phase of the pesticides life-cycle, although it is a key element for determining the overall risks that pesticides entail. The very purpose of the Thematic Strategy on pesticides is to address this deficiency. "Use" includes all the operations carried out by actual users, like the temporary storage of pesticides at farm level, the management/calibration of application equipment, protection of operators with appropriate personal protection equipment, preparation of the spraying solution and the application itself.
Some Member States have already adopted measures to reduce the risks for health and the environment linked to pesticide use, while others have not yet taken such action. Therefore there is no level playing field for pesticide users and the pesticide industry. Furthermore, the level of protection of human health or the environment varies a lot throughout the EU and pesticides use statistics show diverging trends between Member States.
Without any EU intervention, this trend is very likely to continue, leading to totally different levels of protection of health and environment and diverging conditions for the main users of pesticides (farmers) in the Member States. Setting equal standards and objectives to be achieved in all Member States can only be done at EU level.
What does the Strategy contain?
The Strategy focuses on plant protection products (PPPs), the largest group of pesticides. Its scope might be enlarged in due course to include biocides but more time is needed to evaluate the impact of the existing biocides legislation, which is more recent than the one on PPPs.
The overall objective of the Thematic Strategy is to reduce the impacts of PPPs on human health and the environment, improve the way pesticides are used and reduce the use of pesticides in a way which is consistent with the necessary level of protection against pests.
It is composed of a number of individual measures that will either be implemented using existing EU laws or, if not feasible, will be proposed as new legislation, mainly in a proposal for a Framework Directive.
The new Framework Directive proposes that:
What other measures does the Strategy propose?
The following measures are to be integrated in existing legal instruments:
What are the next steps?
To complement the proposed Framework Directive on the sustainable use of pesticides and the proposed Regulation to revise Directive 91/414, the Commission will adopt in the near future:
The Commission will establish a consultative
forum, the Thematic Strategy Expert Group, to develop guidance on best
practices and monitor the implementation of the measures proposed in the
Thematic Strategy. In the light of the outcome of this information exchange, the
proposed measures will be regularly reviewed and adapted to technical
Further details can be found at:
 Substantial amendment of article 17 of Directive 91/414/EEC).
 Including in Annex I of Directive 91/414/EEC.
 Clear definitions and EU-wide standards of Integrated Pest Management and Good Environmental Practice will be proposed for inclusion in the Regulation revising Directive 91/414/EEC, so that their implementation would be compulsory and subject to cross-compliance.
 Through the Regulation on setting Maximum Residue Levels.
 Monitoring of pesticides in water is provided for in the Water Framework Directive.
 Within the 6th and 7th Community Framework Programmes for Research.