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What agricultural regulation can learn from pharma

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Medicine has moved from old wives’ tales to a discipline founded on evidence, but agriculture and conservation haven’t completely caught up. A new paper by Defra’s chief scientific advisor and a collaborator argues that insights from pharmaceutical science can inform pesticide regulation and monitoring.

During the early stages of discovery and testing, pharmaceuticals and pesticides are regulated in a similar way. However, this changes in the later stages of testing and after approval, when pesticide monitoring lags far behind.

The debate about chemicals in agriculture has recently been brought into focus by new research into neonicotinoid pesticides and the ongoing campaign against glyphosate, which I cover in my book Is that Fish in your Tomato?. This paper occupies the valuable middle ground, acknowledging both the importance of pesticides and their impact on the environment.

The United Kingdom has one of the world’s most advanced regulatory and monitoring systems for pesticides. But still the authors find these systems lacking, particularly the lack of continued monitoring once a pesticide has been approved for market.

In contrast, pharmaceuticals are subjected to ‘pharmacovigilance’ throughout their lifetime. This involves the collection, detection, assessment, monitoring, and prevention of adverse effects.

Whilst there is a maximum residue level set for pesticides in food, with human health in mind, there is no equivalent level for the environment. If this information was widely collected, it could help us understand trade-offs between environmental costs and food production. This is a first step towards ensuring that policy decisions about the use of agrochemicals are based on thorough evidence.

There’s also no consideration of pesticide levels at a landscape scale. For some wildlife, it may be important not just the level of pesticides in a particular field, but how many fields across the countryside are treated with these pesticides. There currently is little information about where, when, and why pesticides have been used.

Certain pesticides have been withdrawn from the market on precautionary grounds, and whilst the authors hope this will drive innovation, they also caution that abrupt withdrawals can lead to the use of alternates which are no better.

Overall, there’s great room for improvement, particularly from an environmental perspective, but don’t forget that the benefits of eating vegetables vastly outweigh any possible health risk from pesticide residues.

Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website:

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