EU Commission pesticide approval procedure under fire from EU watchdog

The current procedure for the approval of active substances in pesticides “raises concerns” according to the EU Ombudsman, who outlined several recommendations for measures to improve the approval process and increase its transparency.

The new conclusion of the EU watchdog, published on Wednesday (2 December), evaluates the way the European Commission approves ‘active substances’ used in pesticides. 

It concluded that “where EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) identifies critical areas of concern or does not identify a safe use, the Commission should seek clarifications from EFSA before approving the active substance in question, in accordance with the precautionary principle”.

The Ombudsman also asked for more transparency in the decision-making process and clarification on how the Commission gets to its conclusion on safe use while there is no data available. 

For an active substance in a pesticide to be approved for the EU market, the producer must first submit an application to EFSA.

EFSA then carries out a scientific risk assessment, designed to provide the basis of the European Commission’s approval or the conditions of the approval decision.

The EU watchdog investigated this procedure following a complaint filed to the Ombudsman’s office by Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe) in 2013, in which the NGO denounced what they considered to be unlawful approvals of active substances in pesticides by the European Commission.

In particular, the Ombudsman inquiry looked into two issues.

One was the Commission’s practice of approving active substances for which EFSA, the EU body in charge of the scientific safety assessment, had identified either no safe use or critical areas of concern.

The Ombudsman also revisited the Commission’s practice of approving substances for which additional data confirming their safety must be submitted at a later stage, a method known as ‘confirmatory data’. 

While the Commission maintained that its practices comply with the applicable legal provisions, it listed changes and improvements it has made to address the issues raised and informed the Ombudsman of several measures designed to improve the approval process and increase its transparency.

The EU watchdog is now closing the inquiry with three suggestions to the Commission to ensure that it approves substances based only on uses confirmed to be safe by EFSA, that the approval process is fully transparent, and that its use of the confirmatory data procedure is further restricted.

While the conclusion is not legally binding, it notes that with the commitment laid out by the Von der Leyen Commission in the flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, to take action to reduce by 50% the overall use of and risk from chemical pesticides by 2030, the Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, expects that the Commission will follow up satisfactorily on her suggestions”.

Hans Muilerman, chemicals coordinator for PAN Europe, said that “PAN Europe welcomes this long-awaited decision from the EU Ombudsman and demands the European Commission to get back on track with EU pesticide laws, and to make up for the lost time by embracing the Farm to Fork objective aimed at reducing by 50% the use of pesticides”.

“PAN Europe estimates that about 200 active substances that represent a danger for the EU environment and biodiversity have been authorised by the European Commission in an unlawful way, and in some cases, with complete disregard for assessments by the scientific authority EFSA, which had identified them as ‘unsafe’,” he added.

The campaign group added that, despite pledging to reduce the number of confirmatory data derogations in its preliminary response in 2016, the Commission continued using the derogation method “extensively”, with 55% of the approvals for the year 2019 alone. 

Géraldine Kutas, director-general of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), agreed that there are areas for improvement mostly in the better implementation of the 1107 regulation and “keeping to the timelines is something that the process would benefit from”.

“The demand for further explanation is also a welcomed suggestion. Anything that helps people understand better the approval process for the use of pesticides and biopesticides will be beneficial,” she told EURACTIV.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic] 

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