Pesticides keep food edible and cheap. On the other hand they are, by definition, poisonous. Europe’s legislators thus face a dilemma

WHAT is the difference between risk and hazard? Quite a lot, it seems, if you make or use pesticides. Everybody hates them (dangerous, unnatural things). But everybody likes their benefits (cheap and unblemished food). Sensibly regulating their manufacture and use is thus a minefield-but one that Europe’s politicians and bureaucrats are now attempting to cross without getting blown up.

The difference between hazard and risk, in this context, is that hazard is something you measure in a laboratory by finding out how much of a substance you need to kill or injure an experimental animal. Risk is something you measure in the real world. Risk depends not just on how toxic a chemical is, but on how it is actually used, how much of it is used and how often it is used. At the moment, Europe’s rules on pesticides are based on risk. However, a piece of legislation regulating plant-protection products, which is awaiting its final reading in the European Parliament later this year, will shift the basis of the law towards an assessment of hazard.

The legislation’s supporters claim it will lead to some of Europe’s most hazardous chemicals being withdrawn from the market. Wolfgang Reinert, an official at the European Commission’s directorate on Health and Consumers, says the new rules embrace the philosophy that something should be for sale only after the producer has proved it can be used safely.

Many agricultural scientists, however, argue that the change will have widespread, alarming consequences for farming, and will lead to further increases in food prices at a time when they are already uncomfortably high. ADAS, a British environmental and rural consultancy, has produced a report which says even the lowest-impact proposals would reduce food production by a quarter. In January an Italian report came up with a similar figure.

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