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Pesticides: a toxic issue

Pesticides have a lot in common with pharmaceuticals: poorly evaluated or exaggerated efficacy, products marketed without sufficient knowledge of the risks, research financed by the manufacturers.

In January 2013, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that the use of pesticides containing 3 neonicotinoids represented a danger to bees. Following this report, the European Commission suspended the use of these pesticides on the crops most attractive to bees in 2014 and 2015.

They did so even though the pesticide industry had lobbied intensively against the ban on neonicotinoids. One of the initiatives of the pesticide industry was to publish in January 2013 a report by an institute financed by major agrochemical companies. This report concluded that a ban on these substances would have considerable economic consequences. Within 5 years, the EU could lose 17 billion euros and 50 000 jobs. The agricultural trade balance would be severely affected by a huge drop in food production.

The first year that the ban came into force did not result in agricultural disaster. In its 2014 report, the European Commission announced an overall rise in agricultural yields, including crops affected by the ban on neonicotinoids. This is borne out by a number of studies questioning the efficacy of neonicotinoids. For example, 19 out of 23 studies conducted independently of the industry and published in peer-reviewed journals between 2001 and 2013 found no tangible improvement in yields, versus 4 showing a benefit.

The case of the neonicotinoids brings to mind problems encountered in the pharmaceutical field: poorly evaluated or overstated efficacy, products introduced to the market when too little is known of their adverse effects, industry-funded research. Yet there is so much at stake: serious risks of large-scale pesticide exposure, for both the environment and the population.

©Prescrire 1 March 2016

"Pesticides: a toxic issue" Prescrire Int 2016; 25 (169): 83. (Pdf, subscribers only).

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