European Commission set to sanction continuing use of controversial pesticide

Propyzamide herbicide is used on a wide variety of crops and vegetables

The European Commission is likely to continue to allow EU Member States use the controversial pesticide propyzamide, according to environmental groups.

Propyzamide is used on a wide variety of crops, including winter oilseed rape, lettuce and chicory. It is a selective and systemic herbicide — susceptible weeds absorb the chemical in through their roots, before distributing it throughout the plant.

A two-day meeting of the Commission’s standing committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed which began on Thursday is reviewing the authorisation — while the outcome is unlikely to be known until early next week. It is made up of experts from competent regulatory agencies in member states or from their agriculture ministries.

The substance “poses high risks to consumers and is one of the most frequently found toxic pesticides found in European-grown fruits and vegetables”, said Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe — It is on its list of “the toxic 12 pesticides that should be banned immediately”.

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PAN Europe, a coalition of 600 NGOs in 60 countries, and the French environmental group Générations Futures, has called on member states to reject this proposal, “to protect EU citizens’ health and to comply with the EU law”.

Under the EU pesticide regulation, a substance can only be approved when it is demonstrated there are no harmful effects on human health or unacceptable effects on the environment. All information on the toxicity of substances and their related metabolites must be submitted by “the producing industry actor” prior to their approval/renewal.

Accordingly, propyzamide should have been banned six years ago, PAN Europe said. “Instead, the substance was re-approved providing that ‘confirmatory information’ on the toxicity of its metabolites and risk for consumers would be submitted later.”

Its policy officer Salomé Roynel added: “This practice to ask for confirmatory information is a standard procedure for re-approving toxic substances. It is not in line with the pesticides regulation, which limits it to specific and exceptional conditions. Propyzamide did not meet any of these conditions.”

When the confirmatory information was submitted to European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2018 and 2019, it further supported the risks to consumers but data were considered “inconclusive” by EFSA experts, she noted. EFSA earlier this year identified data gaps on the pesticide when asked to review its use by the Commision.

Pauline Cervan, toxicologist at Générations Futures said: “The submitted confirmatory information is not sufficient to address the data gap raised by EFSA regarding the genotoxicity potential of some metabolites and the risk for consumers. Worse, the information submitted confirmed the risk of leaching of some metabolites in groundwater at concentration levels above the drinking water limits, which is a reason sufficient to the withdrawal of propyzamide.”

She added: “The European Commission is legally required, on the basis of this confirmatory information, to concede that propyzamide does not meet the approval criteria and to propose its withdrawal. But it proposes the opposite.”

“Propyzamide is only the tip of the iceberg: The Commission and member states are repeatedly abusing this backdoor to keep very toxic substances on the market at the expense of consumers’ safety,” Ms Roynel claimed.

The Department of Agriculture’s position on approval or renewal of approval for pesticide active substances is based on the scientific outcome from the peer review process organised by EFSA, a spokesman said.

“Positions are finalised on a case-by-case basis depending on the specific details contained in the final Commission proposal that is presented for a vote. The Department will follow the same general process in this case when a final version of the Commission proposal is scheduled for voting on,” he added.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times