Health and environmental groups have fiercely criticized proposals to relax regulation of chemicals and pesticides in Australia, saying they are “totally at odds” with public health and safety expectations.
TO Review of “first principles” A panel of experts recommended to Agriculture Minister David Littleproud that many pesticides and household chemicals should be exempted from scrutiny by authorities, and that approvals of agricultural chemicals should be expedited if they have been authorized by similar authorities abroad.
The National Toxic Network and the Australian Public Health Association said the draft report was a recipe for further deregulation that puts consumers at risk and undermines confidence.
NTN said the panel’s mandate prioritized costs to industry over the environment and raised questions about its chairman Ken Matthews’s ties to the industry.
Matthews was until very recently the chair of the Australian Agricultural Biotechnology Council, whose members include the largest producers, importers and users of pesticides, including CropLife Australia, AusBiotech and the National Federation of Farmers.
Matthews said he had resigned as president of Abca, a position he had held since 2015, and the agriculture department had concluded that there was no conflict.
He acknowledged that environmental groups were “in a bad mood” with his preliminary report, but said the industry was not pleased either.
Protection of health, safety and the environment
NTN coordinator Jo Immig wrote to Littleproud last month about her group’s concerns.
“Overall, the tenor of the recommendations is totally at odds with the growing public expectation that a regulator will act to protect our health, safety and the environment from the impacts of Agvet chemicals,” he said.
“The recommendations seek to place rapid access to Agvet chemicals above the protection of health and safety. The research panel has relied heavily on the opinions of industry stakeholders to formulate its recommendations rather than referencing scientific evidence to inform the best response to systemic problems and improve the regulator. “
The NTN said Australia already had a very lax agricultural chemical control system, and this would further distance it from the EU, the United States and Canada.
For example, the most common neonicotinoids have been banned in the EU due to their impact on bee populations. They have recently been restricted in the US and Canada, but are still allowed in Australia. The Australian Veterinary Drugs and Pesticides Authority has said there is no scientific evidence for a decline in bee populations in Australia, but started a review in 2019. Paraquat, a herbicide used for weed control since 1961, has been banned in 30 countries and is on a list restricted in the US In Australia it has been under review for 20 years by the authority and is still being sold for commercial use.
One of the panel’s most controversial suggestions is to exempt consumer products from the new regulatory regime on the grounds that most are well-tested around the world in agricultural settings before hitting supermarket shelves. Other chemicals, such as those for swimming pools, would also be removed from the regulation.
The Environmental Health Committee of the Australian Health Protection Committee, which represents health departments across the country, said that it strongly disagreed with this proposal and that there was a significant risk of harm in the event of a misapplication of consumer chemicals.
“Health agencies around the world have experienced constant public demand for greater regulation of the pesticide industry and of pesticides used in and around the home and in public areas,” he said in his presentation.
The panel also proposed significant changes to the way agricultural chemicals should be regulated. In addition to speeding up approvals for overseas licensed chemicals, the panel proposed a form of co-regulation, in which data and responsibility would be shared between the regulator and the industry.
Matt Landos, a veterinarian and adjunct professor at the University of Sydney who specializes in aquatic species, said the panel was prepared to use foreign approvals to obtain registration, but was not proposing to use foreign pesticide bans to remove them in Australia.
The panel argued that too many resources were devoted to registering chemicals and not enough to monitoring residues in the environment or in food.
Matthews said the approach dedicated resources to the highest risk areas.
“We believe that Australia has an internationally respected registration system, but we do not believe that the monitoring and compliance system is up to par,” he said.
But there is immense skepticism about the availability of resources for adequate monitoring of pesticide residues. Landos said his work with fisheries in the Great Barrier Reef had revealed this to be a significant problem, however the panel recommended that only $ 600,000 a year be spent on monitoring.
Matthews denied that the proposals were primarily aimed at reducing costs to the industry, although the report estimated that it could save at least $ 160 million over 10 years.
The other major change proposed is to remove the “use regulation” from the states and make it the responsibility of the Commonwealth.
The NTN said this type of regulation is better handled locally than from Armidale, where authority was relocated by former minister Barnaby Joyce. This resulted in the loss of senior scientific personnel.
Complaints about Ken Matthews’ role as president
Immig and other environmental groups have complained to Littleproud about Matthews’ role.
“Matthew’s position as president of ABCA was not disclosed to the participants in this review,” Immig said in his letter to Littleproud. “He is also not included in his biographical details in the information provided with reference to this investigative panel on the government website.”
Matthews is a former secretary of the department of agriculture and former chairman of the National Water Commission.
The ACBA describes itself as “the national coordinating organization for the Australian agricultural biotechnology sector”. Matthews said it was not a pressure group, said its purpose was to promote agricultural biotechnology, which includes breeding techniques that can improve crop yields, but acknowledged that the field is no stranger to the use of pesticides.
CropLife, one of ACBA’s key members, represents 19 companies that sell 85% of the crop protection chemicals and 95% of the crop biotech products used by Australian farmers. They include most of the largest pesticide producers and importers, including Nufarm, Bayer, Syngenta, Nutrien, and Sumitomo Chemicals.
CropLife is skeptical of the panel’s proposals, saying the government did not implement any other suggested changes to address the issues caused by the move from APVMA to Armidale.
“At first reading, there appear to be many good recommendations and suggested initiatives, however others appear to be nothing more than increasing levels of bureaucracy that will go nowhere to address the core inefficiencies of the framework,” he said.
CropLife does not support the proposal to remove non-urban land management and home and garden pesticides from the scope of APVMA, saying it was “unlikely to improve or maintain the confidence of the wider community on this matter.” .
But he agrees that regulatory efforts should focus on “products of greater regulatory concern.”
The final report is due in May and must be discussed by the state and federal governments.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism