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Pesticides: a tug of war

Jul 12, 2017
Pesticides damage the environment, threaten useful species like bees, pollute the water in the Alps, while some are suspected of causing cancer. They nevertheless appear to be indispensable in conventional agriculture.
Image caption:
Pesticides harm the environment, biodiversity and people. © Ed Wohlfahrt_flickr

Herbicides, fungicides and insecticides: a cocktail of chemicals is to be found in Alpine waters. A study carried out on behalf of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment showed that the water quality did not meet legal requirements in any of the waterways examined. More and more pesticides are also to be found in drinking water, with the national ground water monitoring body, Naqua, reporting that tolerance values were exceeded at one out of every five measuring points. The existing regulations are clearly failing.

The topic is also raising temperatures in Italy. In a 2014 referendum, the South Tyrol municipality of Mals decided to ban the use of pesticides on its territory. The decision was vehemently protested by both the authorities and farmers. Three years on, the municipality is still battling for its right to decide on the pesticide issue. The benefits to agriculture are still not yet clear, as a recent study by the Free University of Bozen/Bolzano in South Tyrol shows: the use of glyphosate has devastating consequences for the quality of grapes.

There is also international controversy regarding the use of the herbicide glyphosate. In June the European Union’s authorisation for glyphosate was extended by ten years, as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had determined it was safe to use. The international cancer research agency IARC and the US state of California, however, have both placed glyphosate on their list of potential carcinogenic substances. The EU decision means that the only possibility of achieving a ban is now at national level.

France has taken on a pioneering role here: the government has now forbidden the use of pesticides in public spaces, and this will be extended to private gardens by 2019. As from 2018 France will also be the first EU state to ban pesticides of the neonicotinoid family, which studies have shown to be especially harmful to bees. France has also submitted a motion to ban the non-agricultural use of pesticides throughout the entire European Union.

This is a step in the right direction, but should we perhaps be questioning the very use of pesticides? A UN report on the hazards that pesticides raise for global nutrition shows that the negative effects as regards climate change and loss of biodiversity are potentially huge. The conclusion is that, instead of favouring the prevailing industrial cultivation model, the answer is ecologically-oriented farming.


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