Pesticide Rules need Overhaul

CJ Iorns is a Reader in the Faculty of Law at Victoria University of Wellington.

Victoria University of Wellington environmental law expert CJ Iorns calls for a radical overhaul of New Zealand’s pesticide approval process.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has invited public submissions on some pesticides for potential reassessment of their approvals.

However, New Zealand’s pesticide approval process is a model from the past trying to handle problems of the future. We need more than a review of the pesticides under the current framework; we need an overhaul of the whole system.

One answer could be to modify the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996, the primary statute for assessing and approving pesticide use.

But it may be appropriate to recast the Act with a different approach entirely a more modern one that better fits our increased knowledge about both the state of the environment and measures necessary to safeguard the living systems of the planet.

To address the scope and scale of environmental issues in the 21st century, we need a new way of handling environmental law. Fragmented and piecemeal regulations fail to account for the complexities of the natural world and are unable to respond to interconnected threats. Modern environmental management must be holistic and flexible; it must be able to adapt to changing circumstances while preserving ecological bottom lines.

Pesticide regulation needs to consider a wider range of effects of pesticides on human health and the environment, be more precautionary, and take better account of Māori values and interests.

To start with, there is the excessive value placed on particular types of scientific testing in pesticide risk assessment, which largely override or outweigh other types of evidence.

At the same time, few or no alternatives to chemical use such as biological controls are evaluated as part of the weighing up exercise.

One thing nearly all pesticide testing has in common is that, as science advances, more and unanticipated effects become evident, not fewer. There may be lots of good scientific reasons to make the test assumptions that are made at the times they are made, but all testing has been shown to be inadequate in retrospect, even if it was the best reasonably available at the time.

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