Agricultural initiatives: Counterproposal goes too far
In an effort to lower the risks of pesticide use, the Economic Affairs Committee of Switzerland’s Council of States has put forward a parliamentary initiative entitled “Reducing the Risks of Pesticide Use.” This is an unofficial counterproposal in response to the two extreme agricultural initiatives. After long and arduous negotiations, parliament approved a legislative text last spring. In imposing much stricter limits, however, this pesticide law goes far beyond what was originally intended.
Wednesday, April 28, 2021
- The counter-proposal includes new limit values for plant protection products and their degradation products.
- In future, no distinction will be made between relevant and non-relevant degradation products. The very low limit value of 0.1 micrograms per litre now applies to both.
- This means that up to 80 percent of the currently available plant protection products are in danger of losing their approval.
The “Federal Law on Reducing the Risks of Pesticide Use” focuses on three areas. It seeks to reduce risks related to the use of biocides and pesticides, as well as to lessen the risk of nutrient loss. To that end, the Chemicals Act, the Water Protection Act and the Agriculture Act must be amended. The law is based on the parliamentary initiative of the Economic Affairs and Taxation Committee of the Council of States, entitled “Reducing the Risks of Pesticide Use,” and was motivated by alleged extensive water pollution. Politicians were under enormous public pressure. Although the law includes a number of sensible measures, certain provisions, particularly in the area of crop protection, go too far.
Unnecessarily strict limits
A new limit of 0.1 micrograms per liter of water is set for all pesticides and their degradation products in the groundwater. Until now, degradates deemed to be “irrelevant,” i.e. not harmful to humans or the environment, have been subject to a limit of 10 micrograms per liter – 100 times higher than this new limit. It now longer matters whether a pesticide and its degradates are determined to be “relevant” or “irrelevant.” The law drawn up by parliament requires an automatic review of any pesticide that repeatedly and on a broad scale exceeds the limit of 0.1 micrograms. If no assurance can be given that a pesticide will conform to these limits in the future, approval must be withdrawn.
The abandonment of a distinction between “relevant” and “irrelevant” is arbitrary and lacks any scientific basis. Laws should not be focused solely on the presence of certain materials – particularly when those materials have been shown to pose no risk, i.e., when they are “irrelevant.”
It should also be noted that the groundwater is now subject to more stringent limits than those imposed on drinking water under the Food Act. This takes the idea of protecting health to absurd lengths. The result is to encourage food imports rather than food production. Up to 80 percent of the pesticides that are currently on the market are no longer eligible for approval, despite the fact that no adequate alternatives are available. Arbitrarily low limit practically invite “violations,” which will lead to unfounded “drinking water scandals” and trigger enormous, and unnecessary, investments in “cleaning up” the drinking water supply.
Switzerland’s prosperity is based largely on its ability to innovate. Solid basic research and appropriate regulations make it possible to innovate while also reducing risks. Especially when it comes to preserving biodiversity and combating climate change, there is an urgent need for innovative solutions that will enable farmers to continue to produce adequate quantities of safe, healthy food in a sustainable way.
Nutrient losses and risks
The new law seeks to reduce the risks of pesticide use in surface water, semi-natural habitats and groundwater by approximately 50 percent by 2027. The point of reference is the average for the years 2012 to 2015. The Federal Council must determine the indicators on which the calculations are to be based. Parliament has also agreed on a way to reduce nutrient losses. Nitrogen and phosphorus loss is to be reduced by an appropriate amount by 2030, relative to the average for the years 2014 to 2016. Once again, the Federal Council determines what “appropriate” means.
Collecting data on biocides
In addition, measures are to be taken to improve the collection of data on biocides. Biocides are pesticides that are not used directly in the field, in most cases, but during processing or industrial production. They play an important role in maintaining hygiene standards. Biocides include disinfectants and cleaning agents, but also the active ingredients used to combat fungi, algae and rodents. The new law also seeks to regulate the use of biocides in areas other than agriculture. For example, vendors of biocides will have to provide the federal government with data about their sales. Users must submit information to a central system detailing the purposes for which they use high-risk substances. The goal is to provide a better overview of biocides that are being used outside of agriculture – revealing in what quantities and where they are being employed.
The Swiss Federal Council and the National Council of Switzerland want to put new cultivation methods under the existing GMO moratorium. A majority of the SECC-S decided on Tuesday that the cultivation of genome-edited plants is to be permitted subject to requirements. We discussed this decision with Jan Lucht, an expert on biotechnology from scienceindustries.
At the end of June, the Federal Council published a message about the Gene Technology Act. In principle, the existing moratorium is to be extended until the year 2025.
The federal figures for the volume of plant protection products sold in 2020 offer a contradictory picture: total sales figures for plant protection products have continued to decline. In 2020, 1930 tonnes of plant protection products were sold in Switzerland in total. There was an increase in the sale of plant protection products permitted for use in organic farming. This also includes substances that pose a considerable risk.