Environmental Audit Committee

26 November 2002

Pesticides: The Voluntary Initiative


Pesticides are a major source of environmental pollution, and the costs of removing them from the water supply run into hundreds of millions of pounds.   Nearly three years ago, the Environmental Audit Committee examined proposals for introducing a pesticides tax.  Today, it published its first report of the new session on the Government's preferred alternative - the Voluntary Initiative.  The Voluntary Initiative represents a commitment by the agro-chemicals industry and farming unions to reduce the environmental impacts arising from pesticides.   It consists of some 27 projects addressing operational aspects of their use.

John Horam MP, the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, said today:  "We have grave reservations on whether the Initiative can actually deliver. To persuade farmers to change their behaviour, you need a mixture of carrots and sticks - neither of which the Initiative appears to have."

He went on to outline the Committee's other main conclusion:   "It is not enough for the Government to rely on a single policy instrument, such as the Voluntary Initiative, to deliver an environmental objective.   Many other bodies, such as the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, the Pesticides Forum, and DEFRA itself are involved in determining overall policy in this area.   The Government must therefore set out an overall strategy which shows how different policy instruments - including the use of fiscal instruments, a strong regulatory framework, the Initiative itself, and cross-compliance with subsidy and assurance schemes - are to be used to complement each other and achieve a reduction in the environmental impacts of pesticides."

The Committee's First Report of Session 2002-03, entitled Pesticides: the Voluntary Initiative, HC 100, can be found on its website.   The overall conclusions are reproduced below.

Overall conclusions of the report:

∙The Voluntary Initiative has got off to a rather slow start.  It has so far had little impact on farmers as much of the work done to date has involved preparation and groundwork.  The Initiative is now beginning to be rolled out to farmers and the next year will be critical.

∙We are, however, very concerned that the Voluntary Initiative does not have within itself sufficient incentives to ensure the high level of take-up required.  Nor, being voluntary, can it require farmers to change their behaviour.   In addition, there is little emphasis within the Initiative on reductions in the use of pesticides and on encouraging alternative approaches.

∙On the other hand, it is perhaps too early to judge whether the Voluntary Initiative has been a success.  We therefore consider that it needs to be given further time, and that at the end of 2003 a thorough and realistic appraisal of its success should  be carried out.

∙But it is already clear that the Voluntary Initiative should represent only one aspect of a more comprehensive strategy towards reducing the environmental impacts of pesticides.  Moreover, many of the activities within the Initiative would need to be carried out in any event as part of an overall strategy, and will depend for their effectiveness on the adoption of a joined-up approach.

∙The Government must therefore, as a matter of urgency, develop and publish a pesticides strategy.  Such a strategy should show how different policy instruments-including the use of fiscal instruments, a strong regulatory framework, the Voluntary Initiative itself, and cross-compliance with subsidy and assurance schemes-are to be used to complement each other and achieve a reduction in the environmental impacts of pesticides.  Indeed, there is a widespread consensus, reflected in research studies and the evidence presented to us, that reliance on a single policy measure to achieve any environmental objective is unlikely to be successful, and that a combination of policies are generally required.

∙We believe that fiscal instruments have an important part to play in such a strategy.   They could provide, through hypothecation, far more resources than are currently available within the Voluntary Initiative.  They could be designed to provide rebates to farmers who adhered to more stringent environmental guidance; and to discriminate much more heavily on products in relation to the extent of environmental damage they cause.  However, as we highlighted nearly three years ago, the Treasury and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs need to undertake more research in this area to prepare for the introduction of practical proposals.   They must do so now.

∙The Government is currently considering major issues relating to agricultural policy - both in its response to the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food and in relation to the EU mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy.  It will be releasing a sustainable agriculture strategy very shortly.   This would provide a context within which our recommendations in this report can be taken forward.

Notes for Editors

1. The Committee announced its inquiry into Pesticides: The Voluntary Initiative on 17 October 2002.

2. Details of all the Committee's inquiries, together with its Reports and other publications, are available on the internet at http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/environmental_audit_committee/reports_and_publications.cfm