Aiming for non-toxic agriculture

Circular agriculture

The aim is to substantially reduce the use of crop protection agents in the EU by 2030. Photo: Shutterstock

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

The intention is to reduce the use of crop protection agents (CPAs) in the EU by half by 2030. Project SPRINT is investigating the consequences of such products for humans, animals and the environment. Project coordinator Violette Geissen talks about the importance of this project: “Many farmers are quite prepared to cut their use of CPAs or stop altogether, but they need support with this transition.”

For years, scientists have been trying to figure out what happens to crop protection agents (CPAs) in the environment. But they were using models that have turned out not to predict the real CPA concentrations in the environment, explains Violette Geissen, professor of Soil Degradation & Land Management at Wageningen University & Research. “There are CPAs that are broken down in a matter of days in lab tests whereas we see that it can take much longer in the field. There are even products on the market that you can still find traces of years later. Yet the product got approval for use based on that lab data.” Geissen sketches a problem that was able to develop because of “a lack of toxicological upkeep” over the past fifty years in the approval of pesticides. This is not the only issue she will be investigating with other scientists over the next five years in SPRINT (Sustainable Plant Protection In Transition). “When we assess the safety of a crop protection product for the soil, we currently carry out tests on just five soil organism groups”, explains Geissen. “But millions of different species of insects, bacteria and fungi live in the soil. So at the moment you don’t capture the impact of the product on other forms of soil life. There isn’t much known about the consequences of using combinations of products either. By now, such combinations are widely present in the environment and in living organisms. That is why the current European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) tests and models don’t give a good indication of the actual situation.”

Reduce use of CPAs

By 2030, the EU has the ambitious target of reducing the use of CPAs by 50 per cent. What is more, half of the most harmful products will have been banned by then (a blanket ban on the most hazardous products is not possible as yet because there are still pests and situations in which such crop protection agents are indispensable, ed.). SPRINT was started to help achieve this goal. It is a collaborative venture between 28 research institutes in eleven different countries, with Geissen as the coordinator.

Not much is known about the consequences of using combinations of products

Soil life needs to be taken into account when assessing the safety of a crop protection agent. Photo: Shutterstock

SPRINT is developing methods and models that will give a better picture of the effect of CPAs (including in combination) on human, animal and ecosystem health. SPRINT is also creating a Global Health Risk Assessment Toolbox that EFSA can use to determine which compounds are most problematic and to assess current concentrations in the environment, humans and animals in various regions of Europe. Geissen: “We must close the gaps in our knowledge if we are to make the right decisions.” SPRINT will also investigate the applicability of alternatives such as the use of insects to combat pests, or robots to remove weeds.

2,000 registered products

The agricultural sector is still highly dependent on the use of CPAs. Around 2,000 have been registered for use in Europe. Together, they contain 500 different active compounds. Each protection product is reassessed every ten years to check whether it can still be sold in the EU. Geissen: “Many products are withdrawn from the market at that point and replaced by new ones. That is why those products are found to be more harmful as expected. SPRINT therefore faces a huge, incredibly complex challenge.” At present, the SPRINT researchers are mainly occupied with collecting data. Thousands of samples are being analysed. That is a massive task but the SPRINT laboratories have both advanced equipment and a great deal of knowledge and experience. The scientists are investigating which crop protection compounds are found in the soil, air, water, animals and humans in ten different regions in Europe, as well as in Argentina. Argentina has been included in the project because much of the soya used in European animal feed comes from that country. That means that products used in cultivating Argentinian soya can also end up in the environment here in Europe. The European regions include Nouvelle-Aquitaine, a French wine-growing region that encompasses Bordeaux, and Cartagena, a vegetable-growing area in Spain.

The aim of the SPRINT project is to develop a Global Health Risk Assessment Toolbox to assess the impacts of Plant Protection Products (PPPs) on the environment and human health. They will then use this to inform regulators and help farmers/landowners transition towards more sustainable pesticide use.

In the Netherlands, the project will look at ten conventional farmers and ten organic farmers growing potatoes in the province of Groningen. All these regions are representative for the various food production systems in Europe. They also cover a range of different European climate zones, making it possible to take account of the effect of weather conditions on how the crop protection agents behave in the environment.

Testing cocktails

Geissen: “Investigating which crop protection agents we find in practice in humans, animals and the environment lets us determine which cocktails should be studied in more detail. We can’t test all the cocktails because the number of possible combinations is enormous. That is why we asked farmers beforehand which crop protection agents they use a lot. We’re also looking at products such as metabolites of DDT that haven’t been on sale for a long time, but that we know are only broken down very slowly and with great difficulty.”

There are indications that exposure to crop protection agents increases the risk of parkinsonism

This device measures the air near an organic potato field to determine the environmental exposure to crop protection agents. Photo: Paula Harkes

In each study region, the researchers have selected cocktails of the five most detected, used and hazardous substances for further study. There are eleven regions so the maximum number of substances is 55, although in practice there will be some overlap between the regions. Geissen: “These substances are tested in the lab on lungs, kidneys and gut cells of humans. We will select twenty of the substances for toxicological tests on rats and mice, using a variety of cocktails. It should be noted that we will keep the number of animal tests to the minimum necessary.”

Risk of neurological diseases

One of the SPRINT partners is University College Cork, which specialises in the effects of the intestinal microbiome on neurological disorders. Geissen: “We already know that exposure to CPAs causes changes in the microbiome. Now we want to know what role these changes play in neurological disorders. That is because there are indications that exposure to pesticides is a risk factor for parkinsonism; it is already recognised as an occupational disease for farmers in France.” SPRINT is also examining what happens to the cocktails in the environment. Which insects and other animals do they accumulate in, what effect do they have on those organisms and what impact do they have on how the ecosystem functions? Geissen: “For example, we are investigating the effect of these cocktails on the soil’s resilience to diseases. We are doing this by studying earthworms, bacteria and fungi in the soil. If there are enough of them, with sufficient diversity, the soil is resilient.”

Prepared to stop

The Netherlands is lagging behind in the move to cut the use of crop protection agents. Many European countries are already helping their farmers make the transition. That is why SPRINT is particularly important for the Netherlands. Moreover, the project will give the Netherlands a wealth of information. Geissen: “In the Netherlands, we are working with farmers in Groningen. Many farmers are keen to give input. The idea that farmers are wedded to herbicides and pesticides is outdated. They are at most risk of exposure to these products and they are usually not told of the long-term effects of such exposure. They are quite prepared to cut their use of CPAs or stop altogether, but they need support with this transition. SPRINT can play a key role here.”

European research context

Sustainable Plant Protection in Transition (SPRINT) addresses the following European policy challenge: Reducing the use of chemical crop protection products, which fits with the EU’s ‘From Farm to Fork’ strategy Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Environmental Research, Wageningen Food Safety Research and Wageningen University Host Microbe Interaction group European and other countries involved: Argentina, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland and United Kingdom

Duration: 2020 – 2025

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