The Scottish Government has backed a bid by the agricultural industry to stall a proposed ban on controversial pesticides, according to internal memos seen by The Ferret.
The European Commission is considering tougher restrictions on “endocrine disrupting” chemicals. They interfere with hormones and are suspected by the World Health Organisation of causing sex changes, cancers and other diseases.
But farmers in Scotland fear that banning the chemicals could deprive them of as many as 40 pesticides used to help grow crops. Some experts and environmental groups, however, argue that a ban is vital to protect human health.
Memos from officials to the Scottish environment minister, Richard Lochhead, have been released under freedom of information law. They highlight anxiety about the commission’s plans.
“Industry is concerned by Europe using hazard rather than risk-based assessments since this will remove many pesticides currently in use in Scotland,” said a memo in July 2015.
“Removal of these pesticides would be most significant for horticulture and soft fruit growers and there could also be an impact for spring barley production.”
Officials advised Lochhead to make a submission to the European Commission “asking that no pesticides be removed from approval before conducting a full impact assessment.” The Scottish Government confirmed that such a submission was made.
Professor Andrew Watterson, an environmental health expert from the University of Stirling, pointed out that endocrine disrupters could have effects on humans at extremely low levels down to parts per trillion. A recent study for Nordic ministers suggested that male reproductive problems caused by the chemicals could be costing European Union countries as much as £900 million a year.
Chemicals that cause cancer and mess with your hormones should have no place in any food system anywhere in the world. Dr Richard Dixon, Friends of the Earth Scotland
He welcomed moves to ban the chemicals. The agro-chemical industry has often claimed that pesticide bans would lead to complete disaster, he said. “Usually little evidence supports such claims.”
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, accused civil servants of backing the interests of farmers over the health of communities. It was “very disappointing” that Lochhead followed their recommendation, he said.
He added: “The Scottish Government talks a great deal about the world-class food produced in Scotland, but chemicals that cause cancer and mess with your hormones should have no place in any food system anywhere in the world.”
The Scottish Wildlife Trust would like to see a reduction in the use of all pesticides because of the risk they pose. “If evidence suggests that pesticides interfere with hormones in wildlife, the Scottish Wildlife Trust would certainly urge caution,” said the trust’s head of policy, Dr Maggie Keegan.
The National Farmers Union in Scotland, however, backed the government’s position on endocrine disrupters. “If they were badly regulated, there would be a reduction in the quality of food in the shops, an increase in its price and more food waste,” said the union’s deputy policy director, Andrew Bauer.
“This is a hugely important and complex issue, and it is essential that current deliberations at an EU-level are given the time and space to come to the most robust and balanced outcome. Any calls for unilateral action here in Scotland would be highly irresponsible.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said that Lochhead had written to the European Commission last year about “the need to assess the impact of the changes to the policy, whilst maintaining a very careful approach to pesticide approval.”
The Scottish Government supported Europe’s precautionary approach towards the use of pesticides, she added. “We also provide funding to Scotland’s Rural College for staff to advise growers on integrated pest management measures to control pests and diseases.”
The released memos in full
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 20 March 2016.