Pesticides have polluted our rivers and lakes – and there’s no quick fix.

From ‘The Guardian’, London.

Pesticides have polluted our rivers and lakes – and there’s no quick fix
Damian Carrington   I have been reporting on pesticides for more than a decade, but some revelations really stick in my mind. One was the discovery in 2013 of insecticide pollution in the ditches by Dutch fields that was so bad the water itself could have been used as an effective pest killer. Not surprisingly the impact on dragonflies, snails and other wild water creatures was devastating.

The situation does not appear to have improved. New research by the European Environment Agency showed excessive levels of pesticides in about a quarter of rivers and lakes across the EU, with the Netherlands the worst affected. More than half of all Dutch water bodies – 56% – had high levels of pesticides, including 62% of lakes.
Agriculture is particularly intensive in the Netherlands, but it is far from alone in dousing its landscapes in pesticides. In Italy, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Finland, about half of water bodies were heavily polluted, as well as 38% in Germany, 33% in Ireland, and 26% in France.

The EEA also reported excess pesticides in groundwater in about 5% of sites. The striking aspect of this was that the most common pollutant was atrazine, which was banned in the EU in 2007. “It is very persistent,” said the EEA, which also noted that, unlike most pollutants, pesticides are specifically designed to kill living things.

The data analysed by the EEA was taken from more than 20,000 monitoring sites across the EU between 2013 and 2019, but it is far from the full picture. Only half the pesticides detected have exceeded limits set by Europe – the other half could not be included in the study.
The data is also reported voluntarily by countries, meaning considerable gaps remain, but there is no indication of an improving situation. The UK is no longer an EU member, so was not included in the EEA analysis, but insecticides were revealed to be polluting rivers in England in 2017.

The number of different pesticides reported in EU rivers and lakes was more than 100 in Germany and Italy. France detected 215 different pesticides in groundwater. That reminded me of another striking finding from France, from a study I reported in 2017: virtually all farms could significantly cut their pesticide use while still producing as much food. Most pesticides are applied “just in case”, the work showed, doing little other than harming nature.

Only a few months after that, another memorable study laid out the big picture: the assumption by regulators around the world that it is safe to use pesticides at industrial scales across landscapes is false, said senior scientists. With no limit on the total amount of pesticides used, and virtually no monitoring of their effects in the environment, the damage is done before it is detected.

The new EEA analysis comes at an important time. The European Green Deal plan is aiming to reduce the use of, and risks from, chemical pesticides by 50% by 2030. Addressing the risks, as well as the volume, of pesticides is vital – the amount being used is falling, but the increasing toxicity of the chemicals is outpacing that fall.

But cutting pesticide use it is not going to be easy. Last week, the website DeSmog published an investigation into the powerful companies and lobby groups working to water down the EU’s targets for more sustainable farming. These companies and groups spent €45m lobbying EU decision-makers between 2019 and 2020, DeSmog reported, and held hundreds of meetings with relevant bodies.

Natacha Cingotti, at the Brussels-based Health and Environmental Alliance, said: “When working on pesticide-related policies, the imbalance of stakeholders in favour of industry interests is striking. The dominating actors are those very companies set to profit from the sale of harmful chemicals, not those who stand for health and environment protection.”

It looks like I’ll be writing about pesticides for the next decade as well.  

Regards Mark    

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