Pesticides: Actively reducing risk

Plant protection products are a reality of modern times, given the quantity of food that we need to produce. They are used primarily to protect crops from infestation by pests and diseases, which can severely reduce harvest yields, usually working by killing insects, weeds and fungi. However, the chemicals in pesticides could have serious undesirable effects if they are not strictly regulated.

In the EU no plant protection products can be used unless it has been scientifically established that they have no harmful effects on consumers, workers or bystanders; they do not damage the environment; and they are sufficiently effective.

Crucially, the level of residues found in food must be safe for consumers and must be as low as possible. In the EU this safety threshold is maintained through a system of maximum residue levels (MRLs), which is underpinned by EFSA’s scientific evaluations.

Since 2003, EFSA has been responsible for the EU peer review of active substances used in plant protection products. An active substance is the essential chemical component that enables a pesticide to protect a plant.

This task is carried out by EFSA’s Pesticides Unit following procedures set out in EU legislation and the latest scientific standards and methods. By December 2008 EFSA’s work had enabled the Commission to conclude the review process for all existing substances – those that were on the market in the EU in 1993 – and draw up a list of those that may be included in plant protection products. EFSA then embarked upon the peer review of “new” active substances (those placed on the market after 1993), for which the Commission had requested advice on the risk assessment.

The review has led to the removal from the market of pesticides which cannot be used safely. Of about 1,000 active substances on the market in at least one Member State before 1993, 26%, corresponding to about 250 substances, passed the harmonised safety assessment. The majority (67%) were removed from the market because dossiers were either not submitted, incomplete or withdrawn by industry. About 70 substances failed the review.

EFSA has also been central to the harmonisation of MRLs across the EU. Legislation that became effective in 2008 repealed the previous fragmentary legislation and replaced all national MRLs with harmonised MRLs across the EU. To enforce compliance with MRLs, Member States have to carry out official controls on pesticide residues. The results of the controls are reported to the Commission, other Member States and EFSA.

Every year, EFSA publishes an Annual Report on Pesticide Residues in the EU based on the monitoring information received from the EU Member States as well as Iceland and Norway. The EU MRL monitoring programmes are one of the most comprehensive food surveys in the world, covering more than 60,000 food samples which are analysed for up to 800 pesticides. The report also assesses the exposure of European consumers to pesticide residues through their diets.

The 2009 report shows that compliance rates continue to rise, with 97.4% of the samples analysed falling within the permitted MRLs, a rise of about one percentage point since 2008.