BRUSSELS European Parliament negotiators have struck a political deal with EU countries about revising pesticide authorization rules that would reduce the number of crop chemicals on the market, officials said on Thursday.
The changes, to be debated by the full parliament in January and again by EU farm ministers after that, would replace a 1991 law and let groups of countries with similar geography and climate decide whether farmers may use specific products.
But politically, a broad consensus had now been reached that should smooth the way for a final deal to be rubber stamped, probably in the first few months of 2009, officials said.
"This agreement is a milestone for the environment, health and consumer protection in Europe. The EU will set a global precedent by phasing out highly toxic pesticides," German Green MEP Hiltrud Breyer, who is steering the draft pesticides law through Parliament, said in a statement. A list of EU-approved "active substances" will be drawn up, with certain highly toxic chemicals to be banned unless their effect can be shown to be negligible.
If a substance is needed to combat a serious danger to plant health, it can be approved for up to five years even if it does not meet all safety criteria. Products containing hazardous substances will be replaced within three years if safer alternatives are shown to exist.
Pesticides that are currently approved for sale will remain available until authorization expires so there should be no sudden large-scale withdrawal of products from the market.
EU states will be able to authorize pesticides either at a national level or through mutual recognition, with countries to be divided into three zones -- north, center and south -- so pesticides can be approved for a region rather than a country. At present, approvals apply only for individual countries.
Crucially, individual EU countries will be allowed to ban a product, for example because of specific environmental or agricultural circumstances.
Aerial crop-spraying will mostly be banned, with strict conditions placed on pesticide use near aquatic environments and drinking water supplies.
The changes agreed so far will make EU rules primarily a hazard-based, not risk-based, approach. That has annoyed Europe's pesticides industry, which says the new law will remove products from the market that have been used safely for years.
Many EU scientists, for example -- backed by countries like Britain -- are fighting hard against this approach and say fewer available pesticides will lead to resistance problems since pests that are regularly treated with a single product type -- not a range of products -- will inevitably develop tolerance.
This would damage agricultural productivity and make farming of certain crops in Europe uncompetitive, such as wheat and barley, cotton, potatoes and a range of fruits and vegetables, since yields would be reduced.
(Editing by Sue Thomas)