At the height of the mouse plague in Australia last year, the floors of farm sheds were alive with mice.
Like a heaving grey carpet, the rodents scuttled around wheat silos, infested machinery and ran through people’s homes. Farmers across the state of New South Wales used shovels to clean up the carcasses each morning as they battled to control the outbreak with available poisons.
As desperation rose, then-deputy premier of New South Wales, John Barilaro, called for an immediate solution: authorise widespread outdoor use of the highly toxic second generation rodenticide, bromadiolone, known as “napalm for mice”.
Around the world, bromadiolone is heavily restricted to mainly indoor use, usually by professionals, because of the risk of mass deaths to native wildlife such as eagles, owls, falcons and other animals who eat mice.
It was typical of the approach to pesticides in Australia, where more than 70 chemicals no longer in use in Europe because of their toxicity to humans, animals and the environment are still in routine use.
In a rare show of strength, the regulator refused emergency approval. But that was not the end of the matter: a more considered review of rodenticide use is now under way with a decision expected by the end of next year.
Land of clean food?
Most consumers would be surprised to learn Australia has less rigorous standards on pesticides than much of Europe or the United States – and UK environmental campaigners have now raised the alarm about harmful pesticides in Australian food.
There is concern that the proposed trade deal between Australia and the UK will allow food treated with dozens of chemicals banned in the UK to be imported for sale to British consumers.
Grapes from Australia are allowed to contain 200 times the amount of the insecticide methomyl – a suspected endocrine disrupter – than their UK equivalent, environmental campaigners say. They also claim an Australian apple can contain 100 times the amount of fenitrothion, another suspected endocrine disrupter.
Australian food is also allowed to contain residues of dimethoate, which is banned in the UK because of the potential risk posed by long-term exposure through diet.
Globally, Australia is one of the heavier users of pesticides in food production. This is partly because of Australia’s unique conditions and farming methods. But it’s also because Australia allows both farmers and household gardeners to spray weeds and insects with chemicals that have long been banned in other countries.
The agricultural chemicals industry says Australian farmers use herbicides and pesticides as efficiently as possible, but according to the UK environmental group the Pesticide Action Network, Australia authorises the use of 144 highly hazardous pesticide ingredients, compared with the UK’s 73.
Permitted maximum pesticide residue levels are much higher too, they say.
Yet the issue of pesticides regulation passes under the radar in Australia, with consumers lulled into a sense of security by the portrayal of Australia as a source of clean food.
It’s a view promoted by agricultural marketing arms, farming groups, the government and the agricultural and veterinary chemicals industry, which is represented by a powerful lobby group, Croplife.
Is Australia ‘more buggy’?
The argument put by Croplife and groups representing farmers is that Australia is “more buggy” than other countries and that our farming practices, including more limited tilling of the soil than in America, require higher levels of herbicides to control weeds.
“There’s a big difference between farming 1000kms from Perth and on the urban edge of London,” Croplife CEO, Matthew Cossey, said.
“We have one of the world’s best regulatory systems. These are heavily regulated products, as heavily regulated as pharmaceuticals.”
Environmental groups such as the National Toxics Network have called on the Albanese government to urgently investigate Australia’s agricultural chemical regulation.
“It’s shameful and dangerous Australia still uses many pesticides long banned in other countries and still has no effective mechanism to get them off the market or to incentivise farmers to move away from their use,” NTN convener, Jo Immig, says.
“We are a dumping ground for pesticides long banned by other, more cautious countries, which is ultimately not to our competitive advantage and nor is it protective of public health or the environment.”
She points to a raft of pesticides and herbicides that are still in routine use in Australian agriculture, which have been deregistered in Europe. Some, such as chlorpyrifos, which has been linked to brain development issues in children, are banned in the US as well.
“Banned is an inappropriate term,” says Croplife’s Cossey.
“Some are not registered. It works both ways. There are some products registered in the UK which are not registered in Australia.”
Chemicals remain in use while under review
But Immig says Australia’s approach is out of step with the needs of consumers and the risks to health and the environment posed by use of agricultural chemicals.
The European approach requires 10 yearly reviews – in the UK it is 15 – with the manufacturers bearing the onus of proving their products are safe. This ensures that chemical safety is regularly reviewed, she says.
In contrast, chemicals used in Australia can remain on the market indefinitely. It is up to the regulator to decide, based on scientific evidence and international developments, whether a review is needed.
One particularly alarming aspect of the Australian system is that reviews can take decades, with some reviews of widely used products under way since the mid-90s. In the meantime the chemicals remain in use.
Asked why they take so long, Immig said she believed it was a deliberate strategy to ensure chemicals under a cloud overseas can continue to be sold in Australia.
The regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), explained the delays this way:
“Anticipated completion dates for a particular chemical review may change if credible new scientific information emerges that may require further assessment, or if other chemical reviews are prioritised.
“The chemical review process can involve the analysis of a significant volume of scientific evidence from diverse sources, which can result in unpredictable review timeframes. New information, including data requiring assessment, can be submitted late in the process of a review, delaying proposed finalisation.”
Chemicals in use in Australia but banned overseas include:
Now banned in over 50 countries because of its severe toxicity and because of possible links to Parkinson’s disease.
This family of pesticides has been blamed for the dramatic fall in numbers of European honeybees, which threatens pollination of crops.
There is evidence that it interferes with reproduction and development and may cause cancer. It also causes disruption of ecosystems in waterways, including coral reefs.
Has been linked by the European Food safety watchdog to brain damage in children and classified as presumably being toxic for human reproduction.
Brain drain at the regulator
The previous Coalition government took a number of steps that weakened Australia’s pesticide approval regime.
Soon after being elected it repealed legislation introduced, but not finalised, by the Gillard government that would have established a systematic re-registration scheme for pesticides, as occurs in Europe.
But perhaps the most disastrous move was the effective gutting of the APVMA, which then agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, directed to relocate to his home town of Armidale, NSW.
The result was the loss of half the staff, including over half of the specialist regulatory scientists who declined to relocate.
The brain drain prompted a 2019 senate inquiry into the APVMA to conclude the capacity of the regulator had been severely compromised by the move to Armidale.
The industry was not happy either. Registration of new agricultural chemicals ground to snail’s pace. Reviews of existing ones stalled as well. In 2017 the rate registrations of new products within the legislatively prescribed time frames had fallen to 24%.
The APVMA’s performance on new approvals within timeframes was back to 94% by 2020-21.
The APVMA has now re-opened a branch in Canberra, where about one-third of its staff now work, and while its staffing levels have recovered, it has lost decades of expertise.
The Senate committee also noted concerns about the conflict inherent in the APVMA’s funding model, which relies on industry fees.
“The APVMA should be an independent regulator safeguarding the community, environment and trade from the impacts of [agriculture and veterinary] chemicals,” says Immig.
“Instead it is a captured regulator, entirely reliant on revenue from the [agriculture and veterinary] chemical industry in the form of sales levies and registration fees.”
A ‘risk-based’ approach
The concerns of the environmental movement over pesticides regulation in Australia run deeper than simply staffing – it’s also about regulatory philosophy.
The Senate inquiry repeatedly heard from environmental groups about their concern about the way the APVMA operates. The regulator uses what it calls “a risk-based approach”.
This approach “considers both the hazard of the chemical and the exposure likely to result from its use in accordance with the approved label directions,” the APVMA said in a statement to Guardian Australia.
“The APVMA also assesses each product and active constituent according to internationally agreed risk assessment methodologies and will not register a product or approve an active constituent unless it meets the APVMA’s stringent requirements, including that the use of an agvet [agricultural and veterinary] chemical product according to the use pattern on the approved label would not unduly prejudice trade or commerce between Australia and places outside Australia.”
But it argues: “Australian pests and diseases, use patterns, environmental conditions and risk mitigation measures may be different to those in other countries, which makes it difficult to directly compare the use of a product or active constituent in one country to another.”
Environmental groups argue this effectively means the onus in Australia is on the regulator to prove harm, not the chemical company to prove safety, as is the case in Europe.
Europe’s 10-yearly reviews mean that agricultural chemical companies are required to resubmit scientific assessments and proof that the active ingredients do not harm aquatic and bird populations. This has sometimes led chemical companies choosing to withdraw products, rather than submit the scientific studies required.
In contrast in Australia, there have been comparatively few cancellations of registered products – even those that have been banned or withdrawn in Europe. Some APVMA reviews have been afoot since 1995.
Australia’s ambition to grow the agricultural sector to a $100bn industry by 2030 means that more trade deals with Europe will inevitably be on the table. Concerns about pesticide use by Australia will come into sharp focus, as they have with the UK trade deal. Meanwhile at home, consumers worried about the effect of chemical loads on health are likely to increasingly demand better information and controls on pesticides or switch to organic produce.
Do you know more? Email Anne Davies on email@example.com