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Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 11 November 2008

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interest as an arable and grassland farmer in Warwickshire.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they support the European Commission’s proposals for further regulation of the use of pesticides in the European Union, which are currently being considered by the European Parliament.

My Lords, the Government generally welcome the European Commission’s proposed thematic strategy for the sustainable use of pesticides but are concerned that any strengthening of the already strict authorisations regime for pesticides should be justified, science-based and proportionate. We are particularly concerned about the possible impact of the proposed marketing regulation in the absence of a detailed impact assessment from the European Commission.

My Lords, I am most grateful for, and rather heartened by, the Minister’s response. I think that this directive is to be signed off in January next year and it will then be 18 months before it becomes law. Will the Government use their best endeavours to ask the Council of Ministers and the Commission to set up an expert working group to examine, as he says, the scientific risk-based proposals and to carry out an impact assessment in respect of agriculture, horticulture and consumers in the EU?

My Lords, I have considerable sympathy for the noble Lord’s point and I shall certainly consider it. He is right to suggest that decisions in relation to the directive are likely to be made over the next few weeks. He will know that this Government have raised concerns in the appropriate quarters, and we continue to do so. I thoroughly agree that any decision in this area ought to be based on the science.

My Lords, what scientific evidence exists to suggest that pesticides other than organophosphates carry any significant risk to human and animal health which would justify further constraints on their use?

My Lords, the noble Lord is well qualified to ask that question. I am not aware of any such evidence, and we have consistently asked the European Commission to undertake the necessary work to provide the evidence. It is very important that in this, of all matters, any decision should be based on the evidence and the science.

My Lords, if these regulations are passed, will supermarkets be able to import from outside the European Union food which has been treated with these pesticides?

My Lords, the position is not entirely clear at the moment. We will have to await the conclusion of the discussions and then, if a directive is passed, see what the impact on the import regulation is. The position is not clear because the directive is based on what are described as hazard criteria, whereas the regime for regulating maximum residue levels in treated produce, which is how imports are dealt with, is based on a risk assessment. The noble Lord will know that one of our concerns is the move from a risk-based to a hazard-based assessment.

My Lords, I am pleased that the Minister agrees that the regulation of pesticides should be based on objective scientific evidence. Can he tell us whether the vote of the committee of the European Union in favour of banning certain chemicals will have an impact on human health, or will reduce the productivity of arable crops? In other words, are we going to have a second Irish potato famine without copper sulphate sprays and so on, or are there going to be increased cases of cancer among certain people in the community?

My Lords, I hope that it does not come down to that choice because we do not believe that the introduction of the directive as currently proposed will have any direct impact on consumers’ health. As far as the potential impact on production is concerned, my understanding is that the withdrawal of one triazole that is crucial for protection against fungal disease of wheat could result in a loss of yield of up to 30 per cent in cereals. There are other potential losses in the horticultural area, particularly where there is nothing in the pipeline at the moment that could replace those pesticides. That is why we are continuing to press our concerns within Europe on this matter.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that, if implemented, these proposals could lead to significant declines in crop yields, an increase in food prices and many arable and vegetable farms becoming unviable? Will he therefore seek to ensure that the European Parliament considers these proposals within a much wider strategy for European and world food security?

My Lords, it is a little early to talk about increasing prices. I have already referred to the potential reduction in yields. That is why we are concerned and why we continue to make representations in Europe.

My Lords, can the Minister throw any light on the reasoning of the Commission in not producing an impact assessment?

My Lords, will the Minister return to the impact of these regulations on consumers? He said that he saw the regulations having no impact whatever on consumer health, but they undoubtedly reduce the availability of local, home-grown produce for consumers, and there is a risk that the food that is available may not be subject to the same controls as those on European-grown produce. I have to declare an interest as a farmer and grower.