The needs of food security require that food production be increased on a relatively fixed amount of land but in a sustainable way. How can this objective be achieved?
In particular how can we protect plants against pests and diseases in a sustainable way? Many consumer and environmentalists would like to see less use of chemical pesticides in the production of our food, but until recently the producers of more environmentally friendly alternatives, sometimes called ‘green pesticides’ or ‘biopesticides’, have faced regulatory barriers.
More opportunities need to be made available for biocontrol products, such as wasps that kill pest caterpillars for example, and for microbiological pesticides such as naturally occurring fungi, bacteria and viruses that were studied in a Rural Economy and Land Use project, Biological Alternatives to Chemical Pesticides in the Food Chain. Such products offer several advantages such as low impact on non-target organisms, compatibility with other natural insect enemies, and limited toxic residues.
Up to the recent past, however, not enough products have reached the market. Typically, these products are developed by small firms and the costs and complexity of the registration process can pose a formidable barrier given that the regulatory system was developed to suit chemical pesticides.
Progress was made in the UK with the introduction of a biopesticides scheme in 2006 by what is now the Chemicals Regulation Directorate. However, accessing wider markets which would make products viable proved difficult. The internal market did not really exist in the EU for these products but was split into twenty-seven distinct regulatory jurisdictions. This bureaucracy contrasts with the US where a large internal market, support from government, and a clear mission by the US Environmental Protection Agency is smoothing the path for biopesticides.
However, a new way forward is offered by a package of measures adopted by the European Union in 2009. These include revisions to the regulation (91/414) which had previously controlled the use of pesticides, and to a thematic strategy on pesticides and a new Sustainable Use Directive (SUD). Preparation of the thematic strategy highlighted the need for a SUD as several of the envisaged measures could not be integrated into existing legislation or policies.
This directive was passed in 2009 and will be implemented by 2011. It was centred around the creation of National Action Plans in each member state to identify areas of risk, reduce risk and use, minimise the impacts on human health and the environment, and encourage responsible perstcide use and integrated pest management (IPM) techniques. IPM involves the use of complementary control strategies in such a way as to minimise environmental impact.
It must be emphasised that IPM does not rule out the use of synthetic pesticides. Many products that form part of the new generation of synthetics are more environmentally friendly than earlier products, many of which are no longer permitted to be used. However, even these new products should be treated as a precious resource to be used sparingly.
The new legislative framework in the EU offers a promising way forward. Eco-zones have been adopted in the EU so that a product registered in one country can also be sold in others with similar climatic conditions.
But as always, the devil is in detail and much work has to be done before these plans are put into practice, such as devising co-ordinated National Action Plans and regulations. Furthermore, the backdrop of under-sourced agencies in many EU member states may hinder progress but the hope of an economically and environmentally sustainable future is there to be grasped.
Finally, I think that supermarkets may yet play a useful role. Supermarket chains in the UK say they are under pressure from consumers to minimise pesticide residues. If retailers were to better support biopesticides at the food production level it would provide economic impetus to their manufacture and development.
About Wyn Grant
Wyn Grant is a graduate of the universities of Leicester, Strathclyde and Exeter. He joined Warwick University in 1971 and was chair of the Department of Politics and International Studies from 1990 to 1997. He is currently a member of the Population and Diseases Research Group in the Department of Biological Sciences at Warwick Horticultural Research International, Wellesbourne, and is Vice President of the International Political Science Association.