How Europe’s Regulation of Pesticides Could Impact Your Food | Civil Eats

How Europe’s Regulation of Pesticides Could Impact Your Food

As the E.U. moves to restrict hormone-disrupting chemicals, the U.S. government objects.

There’s an important debate going on in Europe that could dramatically influence how pesticides are used on the United States’ 400 million acres of farmland. At the center of the debate are endocrine disruptors, a broad class of chemicals known for their ability to interfere with naturally occurring hormones.

Endocrine disruptors have been linked to a range of health disorders [PDF] that include obesity [PDF], diabetes, behavior, and learning problems [PDF], and to reproductive disorders, including infertility. These chemicals are found in many plastics and countless consumer products, including cosmetics, and building materials. They include bisphenol-A (BPA), certain phthalates, and numerous flame retardants. The active ingredient in some of the pesticides most widely used across the American farm landscape, such as atrazine, 2,4-D, and organophosphates, are also widely believed to fall in this category.

In 2011, due to growing concern, the European Union decided to restrict the use of pesticides that act as endocrine disruptors. But that legislation cannot be fully implemented until members of the European Commission can agree on an official definition of “endocrine disrupting chemicals.” That decision is now overdue.

Once in place, these would be the first such regulations anywhere in the world. And given the global market for pesticides—and agricultural products—what happens in Europe will have important implications in the U.S. and beyond.

Case in point: the endocrine disruptor argument is being watched closely by those taking part in—and watch-dogging—the closed-door trans-Atlantic trade talks now going on. As part of those discussions, the U.S. government and pesticide industry groups are reportedly urging for a “harmonization” of U.S. and E.U. policies. But critics, including the Center for International Environmental Law, note that U.S. and E.U. trade groups are pushing to ensure that E.U. environmental standards begin conforming to U.S. regulations. And when it comes to pesticides, many U.S. standards are less stringent than those in Europe.

At the heart of the current E.U. debate is whether to designate chemicals as endocrine disruptors based on either a) science that shows their potential to act as endocrine disruptors or b) science that also includes a risk assessment with data about exposure and documented adverse effects—a scenario that can be challenging in the realm of endocrine disruptors whose effects may take years to become apparent.

If defined as the former—essentially using the E.U.’s precautionary approach—a great many more chemicals could potentially be swept into this category and possibly restricted. The latter would make it considerably more difficult to restrict a chemical’s use. In recent comments submitted to the European Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Foreign Agriculture Service argues strongly for the latter approach, one that would also include an economic cost-benefit analysis, saying that, “imposing unnecessary restrictions” on pesticides “could have far-reaching and particularly detrimental consequences.”

The U.S. government’s position largely echoes the positions taken by chemical industry groups, including CropLife America and the American Chemistry Council—groups that have a great deal riding on the outcome of this decision. Based on estimates compiled by companies that manufacture pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, the U.S. government says that restricting pesticides as endocrine disruptors based on the broader definition would jeopardize as much as $69 billion worth of imports to Europe, including over $4 billion worth coming from the U.S. Pesticides themselves are also big business, with sales worth billions every year.

More than 90 percent of the corn, soy, wheat, and potatoes grown in the U.S.—many of our prime export crops—are treated with pesticides. Virtually no conventionally grown crops are untouched, but tomatoes, apples, grapes, rice, oranges, and peanuts top the USDA’s list for the amount used on the farm level.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

Pesticides used most on these crops include glyphosate (the active ingredient in “Roundup”), atrazine, chlorpyrifos, 2,4-D, and two less well-known pesticides called metolachlor and acetochlor. All of these have been identified in various scientific studies as having adverse effects on the endocrine system.

At the same time, exposure to endocrine disruptors appear to be costing Europeans an enormous amount of money. According to several studies published earlier this month, the estimated annual healthcare costs associated with exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in pesticides was $126 billion.

This is the estimated annual cost of several neurological disorders linked to these chemical exposures, including lowered IQ and behavioral disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The studies’ authors say this is likely an under-estimation and suggest that exposure and costs in the U.S. are comparable or greater.

In information posted to its website, CropLife America says that “to date” the U.S. EPA Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program “has demonstrated that crop protection products do not impact the estrogen axis in people or wildlife.”

But Andrea Gore, University of Texas at Austin professor of pharmacology and toxicology whose research focuses on endocrine disruptors, says “there is ample evidence that many kinds of pesticides are endocrine disrupting chemicals” and that “many pesticides are known to act through estrogen systems.”

Gore also says she feels “strongly” that the EPA’s endocrine disruptor screening test methods are out-of-date and “do not include state-of-the-art approaches to identifying estrogenic chemicals,” a view shared by other scientists working in this field. These test methods, she adds, don’t address “the most relevant issues to endocrine disruption, such as critical development periods of life when even very low-dose exposures can have permanent and often adverse effects later in life.”

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

The European Commission is now reviewing the more than 27,000 comments received on its proposed definition of endocrine disruptors. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether U.S. policy-makers will consider the recent healthcare cost estimates for endocrine-disrupting pesticide exposures as they move forward with these deliberations.

Sweden, Denmark, and the European Council of Ministers have filed a lawsuit against the European Commission over its failure to define endocrine disruptors by its own December 2013 deadline. The E.C. expects to complete this decision-making process in 2016.

Commenting on these policy debates, Paul Towers, spokesperson for Pesticide Action Network, worried that the U.S. position could “lower the bar” and lessen health protections everywhere.

Elizabeth Grossman was a senior reporter for Civil Eats from 2014 to 2017, where she focused on environmental and science issues. She is the author of Chasing Molecules, High Tech Trash, Watershed and other books. Her work appeared in a variety of publications, including National Geographic News, The Guardian, The Intercept, Scientific American, Environmental Health Perspectives, Yale e360, Ensia, High Country News, The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, and Mother Jones. She passed away in July 2017, leaving behind a legacy of dedication to her mission of journalism that supports and protects people and the planet. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. rob keller
    please stop big chem and do the earth and it's people a favor, we need a chem free earth and the united states does not care about the EU residents, just the EU money
    the residents have in their pockets. American will never care about people, not ever, they only care about money and money you can not eat.
  2. Gil Chasin, LAc, CCN, CHt, CSUN
    Very timely, informative. Email EPA & Congress until they get it right! Protect People's Health & tbe Heskth of the Earth. Do Not Sell Out Americans, Eurooeans & & the World by Diluting European Standards for the Sake of Corporate Profit...or for any other reason now or in the future.
  3. Karen Landry
    It is my contention that those already in a physically weakened condition at the start (through assorted Auto-Immune conditions) are at the forefront of the first lot to suffer and potentially wither. Based on the human body's ability to adjust to newer and foreign compromises to survival, it will most likely require at least two or three full generations for a human body (and animal bodies too) to fortify its chances for survival.

    Meanwhile, those of us whose endocrine and immune systems are already dangerously challenged by all these "new" toxins will serve as the test pilots for future generations who will have adapted thanks to our sacrifices.
  4. Linda Foutz
    It is way past time to get rid of these pesticides, the harm that they do, should be more important, then money, but as usual our. U.S. Government is still siding with the big chemical companies, once again money seems to out way peoples health.
  5. Mark Lipson
    Extremely important subject, please add more. What are, "...the recent healthcare cost estimates for endocrine-disrupting pesticide exposures?" Who submitted the US govt. comments?
  6. Matt R
    If you do a little research you will find the Europe currently uses more pesticides then the US does. We on the other hand have more GMO's thus we need less Pesticides.

    Unfortunatly, you can not have both to sustain our massive population levels.
  7. May we all live to see the return of chemical free food and witness the health benefits. The precautionary principal should be followed always.
  8. Paul Tacey
    Good article for the facts, but I can't work out the angle. To me the headline, and some of the actual story, reads as if the author is complaining that an EU decision would have a negative impact on the USA. Sorry, but if the EU does something to protect the safety of its citizens, that's our business.

    My big concern is the new TTIP agreement which will allow US companies to export food to the EU that doesn't meet EU standards, such as banned chemicals. Basically all the poisonous crap we've manage to get rid of.
  9. I think its important not to make too much of the differences between the EU and the US in terms of outcomes. The EU's EFSA is almost as corrupt as the EPA:
    and the lack of GMOs being grown in the EU are not the work of EFSA but of certain politicians and countries and overwhelming public resistance.
  10. Bob
    This is absolutely frightening and shows precisely the kinds of risk that Americans and people around the world have been exposed to thanks to the chemical industry. I'm sure by now, we all know plenty of people who have been affected by various kinds of neurological problems. To think that children may have to spend the rest of their lives suffering with issues that are linked to chemicals in their food is appalling. And to think that peoples' ability to have children could be jeopardized by fertilizers that act doubly to harm the basic components of most ecosystems is no longer acceptable. We have information now to promote some drastic changes to the ways in which we grow and consume our food.
  11. colleen kremonas
    The problem?
  12. Julie McNeice
    We on Canada's prairie are surrounded by "round-up ready" crops! I sincerely hope for more restrictive results.
  13. leona klerer
    Reduce or remove all pesticides. Rotate crops and diversify crops.
  14. Michelle Cherry
    Are you really still willing to put profits before human health?
  15. The big NO is not good enough. What is the YES answer?. Eating, health for the environment and myself, why should I have to pick?
  16. George Rocheleau
    In your article you call Glyphosate and 2,4-D pesticides, when in fact they are both herbicides.
    • Twilight Greenaway
      Herbicides are part of the larger class of chemicals called "pesticides" (along with fungicides, miticides, etc). See:
  17. Linda Smith
    I'm with Europe on this one; we in US need much stronger pesticide restrictions and the ELIMINATION of GMOs.
  18. We are certified organic farmers. Most of our neighbours are organic, some are conventional. We have experience with both. The myth being pushed upon the consumer that chemical/conventional agricultural practices are the only way to feed the demand of a growing world population is seriously flawed. At best it is silly science. There is little sustainable about mining the soil to depletion only to fill it up with toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers and expecting it to produce better than a well managed plot of land. Organic yields are only marginally less and sometimes equal to chemical farming, Compare nutritive values of organics vis-a-vis chemical produce then the scales are tipped in favour of organics. Enough is enough.
  19. We need change now in the usa. Can this article be published in the local paper?
  20. Paul Christensen
    This would seem to say that the EU doesnt want to be as backwards as North America in how it regulates chemicals used in food production. Time to take some notes here I think. Time for change here fast
  21. Ruth Thomas
    Please move forward quickly and forcefully. The chemical manufacturers are working tirelessly to make this null and void through the secret trade agreements they are pushing. You will save and enhance lives in the US as well as Europe with forceful action.
  22. David
    "This is the estimated annual cost of several neurological disorders linked to these chemical exposures, including lowered IQ and behavioral disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. "

    As a teacher having taught special education as well as typical education, I have noticed the increase of students who need more help to learn as well as the increase in students who have ADHD and ADD as well as Autism. It has always been said it was our polluted environment which is so generalized but now we can see a focus as to why it is happening. There was much less of these problems in the days of family farms and very limited use of herbicides and pesticides not to mention GM foods which have the stuff embedded in the food itself.
  23. Donna Robin
    I think all the pesticides and most preservatives in our foods are causing billions of dollars in extra health care.
    Higher Government officials can afford to plant their own gardens or guard against a lot of the daily things the average person has to try and overcome and still live.
    I am 72 and know many people younger who have these unexplained diseases popping up in families that have never seen these problems before.
    Even Dr.'s are having trouble diagnosing these diseases. Especially brain disorders as noted in the article and joint and muscular disorders that have never been heard of so they make up a name and take years to put it on the books. **Fibromialgia" being one of these. spelling is incorrect but you know the one i mean.
  24. We need to outlaw the agricultural pesticides and herbicides. We need tougher regulations.

    we need to outlaw GMO's, and in the meantime, we need mandatory labeling of all products containing any GMO's.

    we grow organic and would never knowing buy any GMO, or feed any GMO to my family or friends.

    We need to promote organic agriculture.
  25. Great knowledge,thank you for sharing

More from




Zero-Waste Grocery Stores in Growth Mode as Consumers Seek to Ditch Plastic

Inside a re_ grocery store in the Mar Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of re_grocery)

On Farms, ‘Plasticulture’ Persists

Rows of plastic-covered strawberry plants.

Oral History Project Preserves Black and Indigenous Food Traditions

Ira Wallace (left) and Sariyah Benoit sit together in Spelman College’s Victory Garden. (Photo credit: Heirloom Gardens Project)

Can AI Help Cut Plastic Waste From the Food System?