Although the response accepts the majority of the concerns raised by the Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution’s investigation into pesticides, launched last September (see related story), it rules against the recommendations in one key area.

Much of last September’s debate revolved around whether or not a buffer zone separating sprayed crops from people and property living alongside farmland was necessary, and if so, how wide it should be.

The Royal Commission had acknowledged the jury was still out on whether farming was harming its neighbours but suggested the precautionary principle be adopted and recommended a five metre strip of unsprayed land be left as a buffer between fields and residential property, as well as buildings such as schools, hospitals and retirement homes where people might be adversely affected by pesticide spray.

Anti-spray activists such as Georgina Downs of the UK Pesticides Campaign argued at the time that a five metre buffer was meaningless as spray drift could be carried miles, not metres.

In its response, the Government agrees the five metre buffer is pointless, but for rather different reasons.

It argues that introducing a buffer zone is not a ‘proportionate response’ considering the level of uncertainty over the possible risks spraying crops poses to the public and says making it a legal requirement could unnecessarily increase the level of concern – both for residents and farmers themselves.

Instead, says the response, problems can be resolved without Government intervention by residents talking to the farmers concerned about their concerns.

“The Government recognises that some residents do have genuine concerns over the perceived effects of pesticide spraying for a wide variety of reasons, including health and general nuisance,” it says.

“In such cases a buffer zone may help reduce the level of concern and increase public confidence. [But] we are also aware of the argument that the introduction of a statutory requirement for zone in the absence of a clear context on the part of either the resident or farmer may result in an increased level of concern.

“The Government believes that the best way to address these concerns is through dialogue between residents and farmers to identify areas of concern and develop mutually agreeable solutions based on a common understanding of the issue.

“Such solutions could include voluntary use of buffer zones by farmers but would also allow for other more innovative solutions to be developed on the basis of local needs.”

Of the 34 other recommendations, the Government rejects nine of them, saying of the rest it accepts, will consider or is already doing the remaining 25.

Minister with responsibility for pesticides, Jeff Rooker, said: “I firmly believe that the concerns of residents are best addressed at the local level through dialogue between residents and farmers to identify and understand the issues and develop mutually agreeable solutions.

“I also believe that this can be achieved most rapidly through a voluntary approach that allows for innovative and flexible solutions.

“Existing voluntary schemes such as Farm Assurance and the Voluntary Initiative have demonstrated how effective non-statutory approaches can be in changing behaviour.

“I want to see schemes such as these playing a crucial role in ensuring that both farmers and the public can have a greater mutual understanding of the problems they each face.

“These schemes have the potential to provide farmers both with the practical support and the incentive to be good neighbours in this regard and I will be discussing with these organisations and others how this might be achieved.

“I believe that the proposals set out in the Government’s response, a number of which are already underway, can achieve the majority of outcomes envisaged…without the need for additional burdensome regulation on the agricultural sector.”

Ms Downs, who has been lobbying for tighter controls on pesticides for a number of years, told edie she thought the response was a disgrace and would change nothing.

“The Government have refused to acknowledge the health risks inherent in the spraying of agricultural chemicals and have decided not to introduce any legal measures to protect rural residents and communities,” she said.

“This shows absolute contempt for people who live, work, go to school or just spend considerable time in the countryside. Voluntary and self-regulatory measures have existed for decades, have not worked and are completely unacceptable in this situation. Therefore the introduction of statutory measures is essential.”

“There has never been an adequate risk assessment for residents, yet pesticides are not supposed to be approved for use until risk assessments have been undertaken to provide evidence that there will not be a health risk.

“The only way to protect public health and prevent any illnesses that could be associated with pesticides, both now and for future generations, is to avoid exposure altogether through the widespread adoption of truly sustainable non-chemical and natural methods, as an alternative to chemical pest control.

“This would obviously be more in line with the Government’s commitment to sustainable development, sustainable food and farming and sustainable communities, as the reliance on toxic chemicals designed to kill plants, insects or other forms of life cannot be classified as sustainable.”

Sam Bond

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