The report published today says present regulations on pesticides are 'partial and fragmented' with the result that consumers are being asked to pay millions of pounds in water charges to remove pesticides or to accept lower standards for clean water.
Pesticides should be sold through a prescription system similar to the way drugs are dispensed by the National Health Service, according to a report by the Centre for Rural Economy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
'Crop doctors' who are independent of the pesticide industry could be licensed to dispense pesticides and offer advice to farmers on the best methods of pest control.
'Such a system would mean advice on crop protection would be divorced from the selling of pesticides,' the report says.
'The bulk of advice which farmers receive about pesticide application comes from the representatives of agrochemical suppliers. This situation may well have encourged greater use of pesticides.'
The report adds: 'Currently, as soon as an adviser is called on to a farm, non-chemical pest control strategies are almost inevitably closed off. The term 'crop protection' has been appropriated by the chemical industry, but there are a range of alternatives to 'chemical' crop protection.'
Crop doctors could also help to monitor the use of pesticides, which is carried out under a system that primarily relies on testing for the chemical pollutants once they have entered the water supply.
Neil Ward, one of the researchers who compiled the report, said: 'More attention needs to be addressed to the root causes of the problems which pesticides cause rather than clearing up afterwards.'
Consumers are paying for the removal of pesticides through higher water bills but tighter controls on the use of the chemicals might provide a cheaper solution, he said. 'This would mean the polluter would have to bear the cost. It would also address the underlying causes of the problem rather than its symptoms.'
Currently there is little scientific agreement on the dangers posed by the relatively small amounts of pesticides that seep into the water supply.
Some water companies in the United Kingdom have not been able to meet the limits set by the European Union's 1980 Drinking Water Directive with the result that the Government is pressing for these standards to be relaxed.
The Newcastle study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, concluded that these standards should not be changed 'on the grounds that there is uncertainty over toxicity levels and merit in the precautionary principle'.
It also pointed out that most people do not want pesticides in their drinking water, even if they are told the levels are safe.
An underlying problem of pesticide control is the emphasis placed on the need to satisfy the agricultural industry, the researchers say. 'The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food exercises overall control of the regulatory system, and the interests of agriculture and agribusiness seem sometimes to be favoured at the expense of water consumers and the general water environment.'
Water Pollution from Agricultural Pesticides, Centre for Rural Economy, Newcastle University; pounds 10