Pesticides are widely used to control pests that pose risks to crops, livestock, human health and people’s property. They are predominantly used in agriculture, where they are a highly cost-effective means of reducing crop losses resulting from insects, weeds, rodents and fungi. They have thereby contributed to the huge increases in agricultural productivity and falling food prices that have characterised the last half a century.

Pesticides have undoubtedly improved the lot of humanity, reducing the very real incidence of disease and death. However, as with all technologies, they also present certain hazards. Early pesticides, especially those based on arsenic for example, were highly toxic. More modern pesticides, including most of those developed and used in the past 60 years, are generally far less toxic, but are nevertheless not entirely without hazard.

In response to these hazards, the EU has since the 1970s sought to restrict the use of pesticides, requiring all plant protection products to go through a comprehensive ‘risk-assessment’. As a result, many commonly-used agricultural pesticides have been effectively banned in the EU.

Certain activists have long argued that current EU directives on pesticides do not go far enough to protect human health and the environment, and that steps should be taken to reduce further levels of consumer and environmental exposure to pesticides. Partly in response to such demands, the European Commission has proposed a new ‘Thematic Strategy on Pesticides’; this would further restrict which pesticides can be used in the EU. The legislation would result in an essentially arbitrary ‘hazard-based’ assessment of pesticides. The proposed legislation is due to go before the European Parliament in mid January 2009.

In addition to limiting the options farmers have to deal with pests – increasing their costs and reducing output – the legislation would likely have a major impact on programmes to control vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. These programmes rely heavily on insecticides, production of which would be adversely affected. The legislation would also undermine the already fragile incentives to conduct research and development into new insecticides. Furthermore, there is a risk that the EU’s strict Maximum Residue Levels for imported agricultural products would change in line with the legislation, forcing exporting countries to abandon the use of these insecticides for disease control. This would be devastating for the billions of people in poorer parts of the world at risk from these diseases.

The proposed legislation is arbitrary and capricious: it would prevent people in poor countries from using technologies that are unambiguously beneficial, with little or no benefit to humanity or the environment.