SA scientists oppose EU pesticide rules

Tamar Kahn | 13 Jan 2009
Business Day (South Africa)
South African scientists have joined malaria experts from around the world to lobby against the European Union's (EU's) plans to introduce stringent new pesticide rules, which they say will hamper Africa's fight against malaria.

The European Parliament is expected to vote today on new pesticide regulations that will restrict their use in the EU. Although pesticides are primarily used for protecting crops, many are also used in small quantities to kill insects that spread diseases. For example, malaria-carrying mosquitoes are controlled using insecticide-treated bed nets and by spraying small amounts of insecticide inside houses.

The scientists fear that if pesticide manufacturers lose their agricultural markets in Europe, they will go out of business and leave other countries hardhit by insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue without supplies.

About 40% of the world's population is at risk of malaria, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). More than half a million people fall severely ill with the disease each year, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Production for public health is usually a discretionary, mostly philanthropic, extra. A review of public health pesticide products by the Boston Consulting Group for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation estimated the total public health market was worth only $750m in 2006, or 1,3% of the total pesticide market," the UK-based Campaign for Fighting Diseases (CFD) lobby group said in a report last week.

"Even if chemical production does not cease entirely, supply and competition would certainly decline, resulting in higher prices and lower quality. What happens within the EU pesticides market has a large global influence, as Europe produces a quarter of all the world's pesticides," the report said.

The regulations would also reduce incentives to invest in research for new insecticides, which were desperately needed as there was growing resistance to the handful available for combating disease-carrying bugs, CFD spokeswoman Caroline Boin said.

A total of 160 scientists and malaria experts from around the world signed a petition last year urging the EU to reconsider the legislation. Signatories included Richard Feachem, former head of the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; David King, former chief scientist to the UK government; Prof Maureen Coetzee, chair of medical entomology at the University of the Witwatersrand; Anglo American's Brian Brink; and scientists from the Medical Research Council.

"I don't think the people in the EU that proposed these regulations thought them through," Coetzee said.

"We know they (pesticides) are poisonous and harm the environment and we'd love to get rid of them, but the EU is not proposing any sensible alternative," she said.

The scientists said the proposed regulations would also harm Africa's agricultural trade, as the EU would not tolerate residues of deregistered pesticides on imports.

"Some malarial countries have halted the use of DDT (a highly effective disease-control insecticide banned in the EU) out of fears that residues on export produce due to leakage of product into agriculture would result in rejection of entire export shipments," they said in their petition.