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Pesticides News, September 2007
welcome > Paraquat Watch > Paraquat analysis

Paraquat: towards a global ban?

On 11 July 2007, the European Court of First Instance delivered a landmark judgement on the sale and use of the controversial herbicide paraquat. Ruling that the European Commission’s 2003 approval of the pesticide did not satisfy the requirements relating to the protection of human health, the Court overturned Directive 2003/112, thereby annulling the authorisation of paraquat across the European Union .

The verdict represents an historic victory for the Kingdom of Sweden, which spearheaded a legal challenge to revoke the EU-wide approval of paraquat, with the support of Denmark, Austria and Finland. All four countries resolved to retain their national bans on the sale and application of the herbicide, despite Brussels’ authorisation of paraquat four years ago.

While the Court’s ruling will undoubtedly reinforce Sweden’s resistance to the use of paraquat within its territories, as well bolstering the five other EU states which have hitherto maintained a national prohibition, the immediate implications for the rest of the EU remain unclear. By annulling the EU’s 2003 authorisation of the herbicide, the European Court of First Instance has left the 15 European members states which previously engaged in the use of paraquat, with no clear, consensus position.

Furthermore, this period of legal limbo may well endure for some considerable time. On the one hand, the European Commission now has until 11 September to mount an appeal to reverse the Court’s annulment; a challenge, which if initiated would substantially extend the current period of regulatory ambiguity. But worse still, paraquat manufacturers may seek to further delay a consolidated EU-wide ban by insisting that the pesticide’s suitability be totally re-assessed according to the frameworks applicable to Directive 91/414 – a process which last time went on for over a decade.

With no apparent agreement as to how the interim legal situation should be interpreted, the regulatory status of paraquat within the EU, and to some extent the direction that the community will eventually follow, will now be determined by the way in which individual member states choose to define their own regulatory responses at a national level. Crucially, they must decide whether to suspend paraquat until such time as Brussels can decipher a new common position, or to maintain sales during the intervening period: a situation which leaves the European debate on something of a knife edge.

With the EU authorisation annulled, national policy makers sympathetic to the prohibition of paraquat are in a strong position to suspend sales. Germany, for example, took little time to announce an immediate suspension of the sale and use of paraquat, including pre-existing stocks . The United Kingdom by comparison has acted more conservatively, announcing its intention to revoke the authorisation of paraquat, but delaying such action whilst it clarifies whether such a revocation will be implemented immediately, or at the end of the period allowed for appeals . Countries strongly committed to the continued use of paraquat may eventually opt to prolong its availability still further should the Commission choose to challenge the Court’s decision.

From a global perspective, the tussle over the European regulatory status of paraquat could easily be dismissed as being a storm in a tea cup. While industry estimates point towards global paraquat sales in excess of US$ 400 million , Europe represents a comparatively limited customer base. Of the 3.4 million farmers said to use paraquat, less than 15% are based in the European Union , while Europe accounts for just 8% of global sales .

Instead, the majority of paraquat is bought and used by farmers living in developing world countries; with those in Asia and Central & South America together accounting for almost 75% of global usage . A 2003 assessment placed Brazil, China, Thailand, India, Guatemala, Colombia, Malaysia, and Mexico all among the world’s biggest consumers of the herbicide, with Spain being the sole European representative among the global top 10 . Furthermore, both Brazil and China were shown to account for more sales individually than the entire European block put together.

From an international development perspective, the significance of a potential EU-wide ban is further diminished when factors such as availability of safety equipment, health and safety protocols, and access to medical facilities are taken into account. For unlike their counterparts in the developing world, many of whom endure some of the worst standards in health and safety, European agricultural workers experience substantially lower levels of occupational exposure to hazardous pesticides. What significance then is a European ban on paraquat, when those most at risk from poisoning are farmers working in the developing world?

The answer to the question is ‘politics’. For while the mathematics of global paraquat sales make the European debate look trivial, its political ramifications are enormous. Just as paraquat manufacturers seized upon the EU’s approval of paraquat in 2003, and used it as a tool to persuade Malaysia to reverse its pervious paraquat ban. the prohibition of paraquat in the EU would provide labour rights and environmental campaigners with powerful ammunition to push for a global ban. Thus, the positions reached over the coming few weeks, by each of the 15 EU paraquat using states, may yet prove highly significant worldwide.

Summary of paraquat use in Europe
Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Finland each imposed their own national bans prior to the 2003 EU-wide approval . Slovenia and Hungary also retain legislation preventing the use of paraquat, but joined the EU after Sweden had launched its legal challenge. Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Ireland, United Kingdom, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Czech Republic, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Romania all engaged in the sale and use of paraquat in 2005 . Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Luxembourg and Cyprus have no ban on paraquat, but are not known to use the herbicide. Norway and Switzerland have banned paraquat, but are not members of the EU .

This article is to appear in September 2007 edition of Pesticide News, the journal of Pesticide Action Network UK.


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