Letter: Whitehall power behind the menace of organophosphates

Sir: There is only one safe way of dealing with organophosphates (OPs) in agriculture: ban them completely ("Tom King was victim of Gulf- syndrome pesticide", 9 Oct). As with resolving the BSE crisis, that will come about when the abominable power of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) working hand-in-glove with agrochemical manufacturers, is broken.

UK farmers continue to use OP sheep dips as a routine prophylactic against sheep scab, despite mounting evidence of the health risks and repeated warnings by the OP Information Network and Friends of the Earth (Scab Wars: the impacts of OP sheep dips on farmers, livestock and the environment, FoE 1993) They do so because Maff has made it clear that any outbreak of sheep scab is likely to result in prosecution. Elsewhere, sheep are dipped only when there is an outbreak of scab or to prevent fly-strike.

The UK regulatory system is ineffective and riddled with serious conflicts of interest. In this area, as in so many others, Maff behaves as if its sole public duty is to increase food production at all costs. Yet, it is also responsible for licensing sheep dips (jointly with the Department of Health) and overseeing their use. All dips are approved on the basis of assessments made within Maff. In turn, these assessments depend on data submitted by the manufacturers. This data is deemed "commercially confidential", and is not released publicly nor subject to independent review. Two of the main OPs (chlorfenvinophos and propetamphos) used in dips have never been subject to a full evaluation of their human health or environmental impacts by Maff.

OP threats are not confined to sheep dips. Maff now recommends that the public should top and peel all carrots before eating because unexpectedly high residues of five different and acutely toxic OPs, used to combat carrot fly, have been discovered in sample testing.

Over half the carrot crop in the UK receives three OP treatments a year; although up to nine applications were reported in 1994. Some 1-2 per cent of carrots tested contained OP residues up to 25 times higher than expected. Most British carrots are grown in intensive monocultures in Lincolnshire and Norfolk. Carrot fly is now endemic in these regions. The Government's own Advisory Committee on Pesticides recently reported that "in order for UK growers to produce carrot crops to the standard required by the major retail outlets, the use of multiple applications for the control of carrot fly is considered essential".

As farmers besieged the Conservative Party Conference on Monday, loudly complaining of the Maff's handling of the BSE crisis, and with the memories of other agriculture scandals from the veal trade to salmonella in eggs still fresh in our minds, surely politicians from all parties will now wake up to the fact that something is badly and endemically wrong with British agriculture?

The alternatives - whole-hearted support for organic farming and genuine integrated pest management systems, with agrochemicals used as a last resort - are known, proven, safe and affordable. Such best practices won't arrive magically, but when politicians are pressured to change the regulations and subsidies which drive increasingly intensive and unnatural farming methods. That job is up to consumers, farmers and environmentalists working together. What better time to start than in the run-up to the general election - anyone interested?



Friends of the Earth

London N1

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