EU Threatens Africa With Precaution

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

By Franklin Cudjoe & Erin Wildermuth

franklin ErinWildermuthThe EU plans to save its citizens from a hypothetical threat by banning a fifth of pesticides, creating a real threat to crop yields, food prices and the poor–especially in Africa.

The UK’s Pesticide Safety Directorate estimates that the proposals could ban 14% to 23% of agricultural pesticides. A University of Warwick study for the EU Agriculture Committee predicts a 30% fall in wheat yields and the possible disappearance of crops such as carrots, parsnips and onions.

Sixteen EU states have warned that the legislation will damage food production without any benefits to health or the environment.

But these chemicals must be banned "even if the causal link between the activity and the possible harm has not been proven or the causal link is weak and the harm is unlikely to occur." This "precautionary principle" is not just theoretical gobbledygook but official EU policy.

Apply this to pesticides and suddenly chemicals that are only dangerous in large, concentrated amounts that would never appear in real life are considered a health threat–even though water in a high enough dose will kill you too.

The EU’s review of its pesticide rules no longer aims to ensure safe use but to reduce the use. Whereas the original directive took into account how much of any given substance was in a product, the new legislation could ban many ingredients entirely, regardless of the amount: this is the precautionary principle in action.

The risk from current pesticides is minimal: maximum residual levels, the amount you can consume daily for a lifetime without adverse effect, and guidelines for spraying are already enforced. On the other hand, the EU’s new proposals cause major tangible risks.

According to a study by Sean Rickard of Cranfield University, a ban on just 15% of pesticides would cut yields enough to push up the price of cereals by a third and the price of potatoes by a quarter.

With food prices already high and recession biting, this is a real and direct risk to consumers around the world, especially in poor countries.

If that were not enough, chemicals such as insecticides are not just used on crops but also against diseases.

Mosquitoes transmit hundreds of millions of cases of malaria, dengue and yellow fever every year. Malaria kills a child in Africa every thirty seconds and threatens 40% of the world’s population.

Insects also carry sleeping sickness, river blindness, Chagas disease and leishmaniasis, threatening around half a billion people.

These people need the pesticides that are principally produced for agriculture in rich countries. If that production falls, the price will rise. When DDT, the most effective anti-malaria weapon ever, was almost eliminated from production by activists, malaria surged back, bringing death or debilitation in poor countries.

In addition, countries that export crops to the EU will be hit by the new rules. Just two years ago Uganda had to stop spraying tiny amounts of DDT on walls inside houses in a highly malarial region because of exporters’ fears that their crops would be (illegally) rejected by the EU–fears fanned by EU representatives’ statements in Uganda.

Many insecticides used against diseases such as dengue and malaria are threatened by the EU legislation. Pyrethroids, widely used in the treatment of bed-nets, could be banned, even if derived from the chrysanthemum and therefore "natural."

Meeting convoluted EU health and safety requirements is already expensive and difficult in countries with poor communications and low literacy.

The risk of poor people in poor countries losing life-saving insecticides and losing export markets due to EU regulation is clearly high. It is definitely higher than any detectable risk of any kind from pesticides currently used in the EU.

Over 160 senior scientists from around the world have signed a petition against the amendment but the EU’s opaque and tortuous procedures make it very difficult to track the legislation. The fate of many will be decided by a vote in January in the usually poorly-attended European Parliament–yet the list of banned chemicals is still secret, so no-one can do an impact assessment.

The true cost, the true risk, of the precautionary principle in agriculture is hunger and disease. Eurocrats can perhaps afford the luxury of unscientific constraints on producers, consumers and taxpayers. But those constraints are a far greater threat to the sunflower farmer in Kenya and the malaria victim in Uganda.

EU farmers and consumers are dismissed by supporters of the ban as having vested interests. EU "qualified majority" voting means no country can veto it. So it is up to health activists and African exporters to make their governments complain loudly and visibly to Brussels and expose this underhand and dangerous move.

Franklin Cudjoe is editor of and director of Imani, an independent policy think-tank in Ghana. Erin Wildermuth is a Researcher at International Policy Network, London, a development think-tank.