Progress on reducing the use of pesticides on farms is difficult to measure because of a failure by the Irish authorities to fully implement an EU directive, according to EU health and food safety inspectors.
An audit by EU officials found the Department of Agriculture did not meet several requirements of an EU directive on pesticide use through its National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides by failing to set targets for the reduction of risks of pesticide use on human health and the environment.
The audit, which was carried out in early 2019, also found the national action plan (NAP) contained no indicators to monitor the use of pesticides containing potentially harmful substances on Irish farms.
“This approach does not meet the requirements of the Sustainable Use Directive. Moreover this makes it more difficult to use the NAP as a tool to conclude on the current situation and evaluate the progress achieved,” the audit concluded.
It acknowledged that specific objectives were contained in the plan for the key areas of training, controls on pesticide application equipment, controls on storage, supply and use of pesticides and integrated pest management but said they lacked quantitative targets.
The 2009 directive requires EU member states to adopt a NAP to reduce the risks and impacts of pesticide use by November 2016.
The Department of Agriculture claimed that no active substances of particular concern had been identified as posing a risk to human health or the environment at the time that it adopted the plan in 2013.
However, the EU inspectors said tests carried out between 2016 and 2018 had highlighted the presence of MCPA, a widely used herbicide for controlling rushes in grassland, in approximately 80% of all samples of drinking water which exceeded recommended limits.
While the Department of Agriculture has taken measures to reduce the impact of herbicides which can contaminate drinking water, the audit said the effectiveness of legal buffer zones around watercourses was potentially compromised by the fact that the department did not have access to information on the location of abstraction points for safety reasons.
The audit found the ability of distributors to ensure that only certified users purchase pesticides was hampered by the lack of a common certification system as training providers issued their own certificates.
It also noted the current system for inspection of pesticide spraying equipment did not cover all types of equipment, which was contrary to the EU directive.
It also noted the Department of Agriculture had not established any restrictions concerning possible conflicts of interest among 118 registered inspectors, as some also provided maintenance and repair services for spraying equipment.
The latest figures show that the annual volume of pesticide sales fell by 8.2% in 2017. They also reveal that only 74,336 hectares out of utilisable agricultural land of almost 4.5 million hectares in 2017 were dedicated to organic plant production – approximately 1.7% of the total area.
According to the Department of Agriculture, the average use of pesticides on Irish farms in 0.7kg of active substance per hectare – approximately a third of the EU average of 2.2kg per hectare.