Toxic Rivers and the EU’s Pesticide Problem

A new study reveals the widespread contamination of Spanish waters with toxic substances, including pesticides, shining a light on gaps in Spanish and European legislation.

Spanish river basins are widely contaminated with toxic substances, including waste from the petrochemical industry and pesticides from agriculture.

These are the findings of a study, Ríos tóxicos – contaminación química de ríos y aguas subterráneas, conducted by the Spanish confederation of ecological groups, Ecologistas en Acción, in which rivers, reservoirs, lakes and groundwaters in Spain were analysed.

Agricultural pesticides were among the toxic pollutants found in the study, including the herbicide glyphosate and endocrine disruptors. Both these substances damage the environment, animals and plants, and have adverse effects on human health, with links to cancers and developmental disorders.

The study comes ahead of a draft regulation proposal on pesticides expected from the European Commission later this month.

Another danger highlighted in the study is the potential of multiple toxic substances interacting, with the negative impacts of such “chemical cocktails” often not precisely known.

“The serious state of contamination of Spanish surface and groundwater with toxic substances of multiple origins brings to light the shortcomings of legislation that does not analyse 80% of pesticides in use, the lack of coordination between administrations, and a lack of reduction measures by the Spanish Ministry of Ecological Transition” said Koldo Hernández, Coordinator on Toxic Substances for Ecologistas en Acción.

“The European Commission must regulate all these substances to guarantee that threshold concentrations are not exceeded and monitor the measures of Member States to reduce toxic loads” he added.

A pan-European pesticide problem

Pesticide pollution is not a solely Spanish worry: intensive agricultural practices, including the heavy use of pesticides, are driving the collapse of biodiversity in the European Union, and severely damaging both the health of ecosystems and humans.

Water pollution is a key issue in Europe, with less than 40% of its rivers, lakes and streams deemed as having good chemical status under current EU water law. Meanwhile, pesticides are also polluting most of European soils, where they accumulate and harm soil microbial life and activity.

These polluting pesticides jeopardise Europe’s agriculture by degrading functioning ecosystems and reducing their capabilities to provide services like natural pest predation and crop pollination. Indeed, scientists have already rung the alarm bells that chemical pollution has surpassed the safe limit for the ecosystems upon which humanity and life depends.

Pulling the plug on pesticides

The European Commission is set to launch an update to the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive on 23 March 2022. The revamp aims to bring the legislation into line with the goals of the European Green Deal and secure better implementation by the Member States.

Chief among these goals is the objective of the flagship Farm to Fork Strategy to cut in half the use and risk of pesticides.

Over 70 civil society organisations, including the European Environmental Bureau and Ecologistas en Acción, have expressed their concerns about the lack of ambition seen in drafts of the proposal.

Writing in a joint statement, they criticise the proposal as falling short on delivering the transformative changes needed to secure the EU’s transition to agroecology, that is, sustainable farming practices that produce healthy foods, while reducing pollution and resource consumption.

While the statement welcomes the proposal’s ban on pesticide use in sensitive areas, such as those protected under the Natura 2000 sites, it slams the promotion of approaches that still relies on pesticides like precision farming.

The organisations call on the Commission to upgrade the proposal to establish ambitious and legally binding reduction targets in the use and risk of synthetic pesticides and immediately ban the use of more hazardous pesticides.

They also suggest a re-name from “Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products” to the “Regulation to reduce dependence on synthetic pesticides”, citing that the current title uses terminology pushed by industry, as the use of synthetic pesticides cannot be sustainable.

“It is high time to put citizens and the environment first, in Spain and all across Europe – this means a transition to agroecology and preventing pesticide pollution at the source.” said Eva Corral, Senior Policy Officer on Pesticide and Water Pollution at the EEB.