Ministers turn to RCEP on safety of crop spraying

The Government has rejected calls for compulsory agricultural pesticide no-spray zones to be established around residential properties to protect the public from spray drift. In recognition of strongly adverse public opinion, however, it has requested the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution to report on the science used to assess the risks to the public from crop spraying.

The announcement follows two consultations by the Environment Department (DEFRA) last year on the need for buffer zones and public access to information on pesticide applications.

The consultations revealed that opinion was strong and highly polarised. Together the two consultations generated over a thousand responses, with members of the public being generally in favour of buffer zones and access to information, while farmers were opposed.

Environment Minister Alun Michael said: "The Government's top priority is to ensure that the safety arrangements we have in place protect the public. The independent scientific advice to me is very clear that the existing system provides full reassurance on that score."

"But despite existing advice, there is clearly a perception that current arrangements are inadequate. I have listened to the concerns of campaigners who hold strong views about how crop spraying has affected their health. I believe the time is now right for a fresh and independent appraisal of the basis for risk assessment."

The Pesticide Action Network said it was dismayed by the announcement. It would mean "continued misery and danger for thousands of people living next to sprayed fields". However, it welcomed a fresh and independent appraisal of the science.

"We have been pointing out gross flaws in the current pesticide risk assessment system for years. The Government has today admitted that there is little public confidence in it... A more precautionary approach is urgently needed."

National Farmers' Union president Tim Bennett praised the decision as being "based on sound science and good practice", according to Farmer's Weekly. Deputy president Peter Kendall told the magazine he was confident the Commission would vindicate the current situation: "I understand the Government needs to verify the science, it is a good way to silence the critics."

The RCEP's brief will be to examine the evidence on which the current system is based and the reasons for people's concerns, Alun Michael said. Further details of the scope of the study are to be announced later.

The Government also announced plans to require farmers and growers to keep records of pesticide applications to crops and to make the records available. Farmers are not currently obliged to keep records, although a code of practice advises that it is good practice.

Records will not be made directly available to the public but via a third party. Officials are approaching GPs, lawyers representatives and community health councils to see if they might be prepared to adopt the role.

The Government also announced a pilot study into how residents might be given advance warning of pesticide applications on neighbouring farms. The practicality and cost of the various options will be key considerations.

PAN welcomed the plans which it interpreted as a response to its campaigns. The group wants free and direct public access to farm spray records, mandatory centralised pesticide usage reporting, advance notification of applications and on-site signs to be erected near residential areas and in fields where there are public rights of way.

The group also wants no-spray buffer zones introduced urgently. It has particularly focused its campaign around the practice of spraying sulphuric acid onto potato crops prior to harvest. Some 11,000 tonnes of 77% acid are sprayed every year and there have been 55 reports of health effects, the group says.