Aspects of UK pesticides policy in the UK will require reconsideration after Mr Justice Collins allowed an application in the High Court from campaigner Georgina Downs for a review of current policy. She has argued that exposure to crop chemicals caused illness.

The judge said: ‘I recognise that it is not easy to attribute a particular cause to many chronic illnesses, and a view that a cause has been identified may be wrong. But there is evidence that some long-term illnesses may be attributable to exposure [to pesticides]. He said the complainant had produced ‘solid evidence’ that rural residents had ‘suffered harm to their health … or, at the very least, doubts have reasonably been raised as to the safety of pesticides’ under the Government’s current rules.

Defra have to consider whether to appeal and the initial response I heard from a junior minister on Radio 5 was relatively robust, emphasising the importance of safety, but also mentioning other considerations such as food security. In a statement, the department said that ‘Pesticides used in [the UK] are rigorously assessed to the same standards as he rest of the EU and use is only ever authorised after internationally approved tests. These explicitly include impacts on people who live next to fields, consumers who eat treated crops and farmers who do the spraying.’

The judgement is a long and complex one and the department said it would examine ‘whether there are ways in which we can strengthen our system further and also to consider whether it would put us out of step with the rest of Europe and have implications for other member states.’ This is an important consideration given efforts to reduce regulatory barriers between member states that hinder the functioning of an internal market in plant protection products.

The issue was reviewed in an extensive earlier report by the UK’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution when the issue of ‘buffer zones’ was raised. The judge said that amendments to the government’s pesticide rules could include the extension of buffer zones, which are at present set to ensure that pesticides are not sprayed on water courses. Under present arrangements farmers are not required to leave a buffer zone around fields to prevent chemicals landing on paths or adjacent land.

It is generally agreed that pesticides are probably the most regulated substances in production. The existence of a rigorous regulatory system is appropriate. As always, the issue is striking a balance. As Defra acknowledged in its statement, human health is paramount. However, the fact that someone was near a field being sprayed and subsequently contracted an illness does not demonstrate a cause and effect relationship. That would require careful analysis.

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