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Pesticide overuse fears

A controversy and, given the subject, some concern, has arisen over the use of the pesticide, chlorpyrifos, which is widely used on food crops in Malta. In 2014, a pesticide awareness group found that about a third of pregnant women living within 1.5 kilometres of a farm spraying the chemical had an increased risk of bearing a child with some form of autism or developmental disorder. The contentious insecticide has been further thrust into the international spotlight since eight US attorney generals won an appeal to ban its use following growing public health concerns.

The Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority, responsible for pesticide testing, has said the substance registered the highest readings of all the chemicals detected as being overused on produce in the Maltese market. Of 13 samples found to have excessive levels of the chemical, 12 were locally grown, it noted.

Farmers have candidly admitted that with the appearance of new pests they were having to resort to applying much higher amounts of the chemical, and others, in a bid to save their crops. It is also a fact that Maltese fruit and vegetables have failed the highest number of pesticide tests in Europe even if some consider the methods used to be flawed.

Although chlorpyrifos is legal and commonly used in the European Union, it has also been the subject of controversy in member states in recent years. Scientific studies have pointed out, however, that rather than resulting from eating the produce covered in the pesticide, the harm mostly arises during the spraying process when residue can be caught in the wind and travel considerable distances covering residential areas.

Wherein lies the truth? Helpfully, Malcolm Borg, deputy director at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology’s Institute of Applied Science, intervened to calm the situation. He pointed out the rather obvious point that the bar for the EU’s approval standards of pesticide use is far higher and more rigorous than those in the United States, where the latest concerns about chlorpyrifos have arisen. The EU wisely uses the ‘precautionary principle’ in deciding safety issues, which means if there is credible evidence of danger to human health protective action is taken even if there is continuing scientific uncertainty.

He rightly underlines that the MCCAA is the competent authority responsible for monitoring and enforcement of Malta’s action plan on the sustainable use of pesticides and for all local pesticide testing. Indeed, it was the regulator that reported that chlorpyrifos had registered the highest readings of all the chemicals detected and was being overused on local produce.

The Environment Ministry has since said that, although chlorpyrifos was indeed being used on the island, the test results were flawed because the MCCAA had applied thresholds during their tests which the EU then lowered significantly a few months later.

This may appear to have been a storm in a tea-cup. However, given that, as a nation, we rightly like to buy local fruit and vegetable produce because we deem it fresh and grown by our own farmers, it is incumbent on both the Environment Ministry and the MCCAA to restore confidence by making it absolutely plain that our produce is indeed safe to eat and not contaminated by excessive use of chlorpyrifos or any harmful pesticides.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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