Why isn't an evaluating environmentally-friendly low-chem agricultural product a top priority everywhere?

Why isn't an evaluating environmentally-friendly low-chem agricultural product a top priority everywhere?

We all want to be sure that our food is as healthy and natural as possible.  We also want it to be cheap!

So we – through the powerful supermarket chains – ramp up the pressure on farmers to use low-chem, "safe"agricultural products, such as bio-pesticides, while also keep costs down.

A big problem in achieving these goals is the time it takes to license newly-emerging bio-pesticides and other low-chem agricultural products in some parts of the world.

It's a particular problem in bureaucracy-plagued Europe, where you're talking three to five years to complete the licensing process.

Could new, updated EU regulations passed in October 2009 speed things up at last?

The Plant Protection Products Regulation

The new regulations became law on December 14, 2009 and must be applied from June 14, 2011.

One key Regulation, Article 67: Recording and Disclosing Information on pesticides, aims to increase the level of protection for people and the environment but also, crucially, to speed up decision making and provide clearer rules.

European legislation on plants was first formulated against the background of the 1950´s and 60's, when heavy metal preparations were used with resulting negative environmental and health effects.

The EU's aim now is to remove as many substances as possible that have adverse impacts on health and environment or leave dangerous pesticide residues in the final products.

The new framework introduces substitution so other, safer solutions or methods, such as low-chem fertilisers and bio-pesticides, replace the problem agents.

Sweden's Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (MISTRA) has a program called MASE (Microbial Activity for a Sound Environment), which has been working with food producer Findus on the use of micro-organisms in the cultivation of all their pea products.

Christopher Folkeson Welch, MASE Program Director, hopes the new regulations will simplify and speed up regulation for new, environmentally-friendly bio-pesticides and other low-chem products currently being developed.

He reports that there is intense pressure from the food industry for alternatives to chemical pesticides and that Findus is ready to use micro-organisms in the cultivation of all their pea products and wants to see this happen as soon as next year.

"The new legislation seeks to have control of both chemical and biological agents used for pest management.

The result is both good and bad for us," he says.

As MASE deputy program manager Margaret Hökeberg says: "In the new proposal the authorities have been given a limited evaluation period, which is very important."

Another new aspect is the classification of pesticides known as "Low Risk." Here is where Christopher Folkeson Welch and Margaret Hökeberg hope the biological resources will end up.

But low-risk agents have a longer approval period than the "traditional" pesticides.  At the same time legislators are severely restricting the old option of temporary permits during the evaluation period, which meant a product could be sold on a limited market basis.

This change could have negative consequences, particularly for smaller companies with limited research budgets.

"Biological pesticides are often researched and developed by small businesses that depend on quickly getting out in the marketplace. The financiers are impatient and this is a bad combination," says Margaret Hökeberg.

The time it takes for licensing in the EU is a problem for all bio technology research companies as highlighted by Marcus Meadows-Smith, CEO of AgraQuest, a leading US-based company specialising in researching and developing low-chem agricultural products.

In a 2009 interview with Agrow – World Crop Protection News, he contrasted reduced regulatory requirements and review times in the US with the "considerably more onerous" EU process, which makes no distinction between bio- and conventional pesticides.

He estimated that it would take between three and six years to license products in Europe unless there was a dramatic change in the process and believes it is not right for farmers to have to compromise on yield and profitability as older, more toxic pesticides are banned, leaving gaps in their portfolios.

The company has several bio-pesticides already on the US market but only one product, a bio-fungicide called Serenade, licensed in the EU in partnership with distributor BASF.

Hopefully the new EU regulations will be good news for AgraQuest, European farmers and food producers and ultimately for us consumers.