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French NGOs bring court case on confinement pesticides

Nine NGOs in France are taking the French government to court for allegedly using Covid-19 as an excuse to allow pesticides to be sprayed on crops too close to housing, in contravention of laws imposed in December.

The NGOs have accused the government of going back on its previous decision to impose strict limits on how close pesticides can be sprayed near homes and workplaces, under the pretext of Covid-19 confinement, which currently limit public meetings.

The NGOs are Générations Futures, UFC-Que Choisir, Collectif de Soutien aux Victimes des Pesticides de l’Ouest, France Nature Environnement, Union Syndicale Solidaires, Eau et Rivières de Bretagne, AMLP, and the LPO; along with the support of pesticide victim group le Collectif Victimes des Pesticides des Hauts de France.

The groups are calling for all waivers that reduce crop spraying buffer zone distances to be overruled, as they are currently “allowing pesticide users to spread their dangerous products near homes without any real consultation in the affected areas”.

In an open letter published on the UFC-Que Choisir? website, the NGOs said: “In the autumn of 2019, the government organised a parody of a national consultation, ending up with ridiculously small pesticide spreading [buffer zone] distances. Many of our organisations denounced these measures in front of the [government court] le Conseil d’Etat.

“But now, profiting from Covid-19, the government has published a release on the possibility of allowing even more reductions [in crop spraying buffer zone distances]!

“These exceptions allow pesticide users to bypass the consultation process; and their obligations under the law to respect non-pesticide buffer zone areas; in the absence of permission, which must be approved by authorities via a consultation process.

“[Apparently] there is no need for consultations or authority approval, all we need is a simple government waiver allowing the spraying of toxic products increasingly close to housing - and to residents who are confined indoors - until the end of June, during which time there are many crop spreadings.”

The statement added: “This situation is even more worrying because chronic exposure to air pollution is considered by [atmosphere quality monitoring agency] ATMO-France to be an aggravating factor on the consequences of an infection such as Covid-19.

“In these health conditions, it would be right to spray pesticides even further away from residents’ homes. But despite the work of associations and citizens, there has been no announcement to increase [these buffer zones].

“On the contrary, in many cases, these [buffer zone] distances have been greatly reduced.”

The group said that this had already happened in Brittany, in the Nord department, and in five departments in the Pays de la Loire: Loire-Atlantique, Maine et Loire, Mayenne, Sarthe, and Vendée.

In some cases, pesticide users had successfully had the “national distances” reduced by "two or three" times, “without any real consultation”, the group said.

It added: “Allow us to remind you that the people under confinement in these areas are considered under European regulations to be ‘vulnerable groups’, because they are exposed to small doses of these [pesticide] products over the long-term, and scientific studies show there is a high risk of developing serious conditions because of this exposure.

“It will now be for the justice system to hear our arguments, and those of the vulnerable populations affected.”

The NGOs said they were being forced to take the government to court over the issue, “because [it] is still refusing to respond to our organisations on this issue, because the conditions needed for dialogue with our organisations are not in place...and because authorities are also ‘turning a deaf ear’”.

At the end of last year (December 2019), the government said that dangerous pesticides would legally be required to be spread at least 20 metres away from inhabited homes and buildings from January 1, 2020.

The “most dangerous” pesticides were defined as those considered to be the most toxic, of which the government has drawn up an official list.

Yet, pesticides or crop treatments considered as less dangerous were required to have a buffer zone distance of 5-10 metres, depending on the chemicals and the crops. For example, small fruits, fruit trees and vines required a distance of at least 10 metres, and vegetable crops five metres.

At the time, many campaign groups said the new laws did not go far enough, and called for a buffer zone of 150 metres, not 5-10.

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