Agriculture News: Jane Mills, University of Gloucestershire, tells us about the SPRINT project’s aim to tackle the impacts of pesticides on human, animal and environmental health.

18 December 2020 - Trouw: Interview Professor Annemarie van Wezel

From the North Pole to Mount Everest, chemicals can be found everywhere. “Thanks to our sensitive measuring methods, we always measure something, even if it is very little, you come across those substances everywhere because we use them all,” says Annemarie van Wezel, professor of environmental ecology and director of the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics ( IBED) from the University of Amsterdam. "We would love to go back to Adam and Eve, but we can't." Yet she is hopeful. A turnaround is feasible, although this will not be easy.

“Chemicals have brought us a lot, in agriculture, fire safety and the shelf life of materials and food. Ultimately, we must move towards less dependence and better restriction to essential use. But you have to look at that as a whole, not per substance. Because if you prohibit one substance, another that looks a lot like it, will replace it. ”

That makes it so difficult to prevent the spread of toxins, explains Van Wezel. “Compared to biocides, which are now widely used because of the corona pandemic, pesticides are receiving a lot of attention. Upon approval, we assess one product, which may be used in one crop. The problem is that the same substance can also be used in a different crop, end up in a different place or be used in a completely different context. But we don't look at that.”

Violette Geissen's SPRINT project may be able to change the European standards for the approval of chemical substances, Van Wezel thinks. For the authorization of one substance, the accumulation effect of several chemical substances is not considered. Geissen is looking at that cocktail effect. Furthermore, now it is not examined whether a substance is necessary, only what it does.

Farmers cannot be blamed for spraying crop protection products, says professor Violette Geissen. The approved insect, fungus and weed control agents are safe according to the standards. Only those standards are considerably outdated. "We don't know what the actual effects on our health are ." And so she investigates.

In 2018, researchers commissioned by the European Food Safety Authority EFSA found residues of multiple pesticides in almost one in every three food samples they examined, up to 29 different substances in one product. All in low concentrations and below the maximum permitted concentration, so safe for use according to the applicable standards. It has never been investigated whether such a cocktail of substances and the added amount can harm human health. Nor is it known what these cocktails do in the lungs after inhaling particulate matter, which entrains them. Or in the soil of fields where they are used and in nature reserves where they precipitate.

Friesch Dagblad - 19 december 2020: “The memory of what happened in the past. That's what Violette Geissen (57), professor of soil degradation and land management at Wageningen University & Research, calls the soil. And that memory reveals staggering facts. Research on European agricultural land shows that 83 percent of soil samples contain pesticides, usually a cocktail of different agents. Resources were also believed to degrade quickly, were recovered years later.

Farmers who use the resources adhere to the law. Before pesticides come onto the market, they are tested. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and in the Netherlands the Board for the Authorization of Plant Protection Products and Biocides (Ctbg) then determine the conditions for use.

 The Dutch Radio show - Vroege Vogels (Early Birds) - witnessed how the first soil samples of the SPRINT project were taken in the Dutch Case Study Site. 

Until now, the effects of individual pesticides have been tested by looking at only five soil organisms. "And that while in reality there are a million different organisms in the soil," says Professor Geissen. "That old method is therefore outdated. We have to look at more organisms and we must also look at mixtures."

In the Netherlands, the focus is mainly on potato fields. "We will then test the mixtures of pesticides found in the laboratory on a many different soil organisms," says researcher Paula Harkes. In this way we hope to get a realistic picture of the means and the risks in practice. "

You can read more and listen to the radio show here