Monday, 12 October 2020 11:48

Plant protection products: The what, the why and the how

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What are ‘plant protection products’?

The term ‘plant protection product’ refers to ‘pesticides’. These chemicals are used by farmers, gardeners and foresters to protect crops and increase their yields. Pesticides contain active ingredients such as toxic chemicals, plant extracts, pheromones, micro-organisms or viruses for controlling unwanted ‘pests’.  These ‘pests’ can include insects (insecticides), fungi (fungicides) or plants (herbicides).   

Due to the risks associated with PPPs, European regulations[1] place limits on how they are used. These regulations are based on the risks to human and environmental health associated with the active ingredients of PPPs.


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Why do farmers need PPPs?

 Farmers are under pressure to produce enough food, to feed a growing population, to remain profitable, and to sustain the environment.  High levels of pests place additional stress on their ability to achieve these goals due to the impacts on plant yields.  

PPPs are part of the solution to this problem and have helped farmers to achieve dramatic increases in crop yields and food production. They protect crops from these pests by limiting or killing them. This has led to a reliance on PPPs in Europe: almost 400,000 tonnes of pesticides were sold in Europe during 2018. Just four European countries (Spain, Italy, Germany and Poland) accounted for 71% of these sales.

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How are PPPs likely to affect human health and the environment?

Environmental impacts

Most PPPs were developed to control a specific pest, such as slugs or aphids. Many also kill other species, including beneficial plants, insects, birds and aquatic life, and can cause air, soil and water pollution where they are not applied or stored properly. PPPs are now considered one of the most harmful products polluting water, with rising levels of various pesticides being detected in streams and groundwaters.  

Agricultural intensification is a significant contributor to the drastic declines seen in insects during recent years, with dramatic declines even seen in nature reserves in Germany. PPPs are suspected in these losses as some can affect the ability of bees to breed, forage, and resist diseases. Other insecticides may also have adverse impacts on insects, in part through slowing leaves rotting.

Using PPPs can also help with environmental protection. Glyphosate (also known as ‘Roundup'), reduces the need for ploughing, too much of which can cause soil compaction, erosion, and runoff.

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Potential risks to human health

Exposure to certain PPPs has been linked to obesity, endocrine disruption, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, respiratory and reproductive disorders, and types of cancer. A WHO study described glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’, and another study finding it may cause the growth of human breast cancer cells. Some PPPs add to the risk of these diseases due to their role in causing DNA damage.

There are some public concerns about PPPs and human health which are scientifically unproven; current evidence does not support the view that glyphosate can pose developmental risks during pregnancy.

Examples of commonly used PPPs in Europe


Metaldehyde is the main pesticide used by farmers and gardeners to protect crops from slugs and does not appear to kill non-target arthropods or earthworms.  It is, however, toxic to several mammals and birds, with poisoning often reported in livestock and dogs. Metaldehyde also contributes to water quality problems due to its tendency to runoff from fields. As a result, it is often detected in freshwater bodies, often at levels above the EU’s limits for pesticides. Farmers are now being encouraged by some agronomists and other sources of advice to use alternatives (e.g., ferric phosphate, an organic slug pellet).


Glyphosate is a herbicide relied upon by many European farmers. Farmers typically apply it before seeds are sown to control unwanted plants. Some seeds are also genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate so that they are not accidentally killed when farmers apply glyphosate to control unwanted plants. Some cereal crops (e.g., wheat) are also sprayed with glyphosate once they are almost fully grown to allow farmers to harvest them early.

Glyphosate has been assessed for its safety and benefits by the EU and has been approved for use until December 2022.


A recent hot topic has been neonicotinoid use. Neonicotinoids are insecticides which are chemically similar to the nicotine found in cigarettes. They act on the central nervous system in insects, leading to paralyses and eventual death.

The neonicotinoids which kill non-target insects can have profound implications for insect populations including bees and other pollinators.  The EU has already banned three key neonicotinoids from outdoor use due to the environmental damage they cause.

Many scientists argue that neonicotinoids should be banned due to their impacts on insect populations and the wider environment. Meanwhile some farmers, including sugar beet growers and agri-chemical companies, say that these chemicals are needed to maintain crop yields. This has led to the lifting of some neonicotinoid bans, for example, in France.

Researchers have found that neonicotinoids pose an ‘unacceptable risk to bees’ as regulators may have underestimated the impacts on bees. The overwintering and breeding success of bees are affected by some neonicotinoids, with bee colony shrinkage of up to 24% in Hungary, Germany and the UK reported. This problem is has become even more complicated since scientists found that some of the available alternatives, such as sulfoxaflor, also have negative impacts on bumblebee colonies.

Introducing SPRINT

Our important new EU-funded Horizon 2020 project, SPRINT, launched in 2020, is going to use case studies from several countries across Europe and in Argentina to develop a toolbox for assessing the impacts of PPPs on both environmental and human health.

Please keep updated about the project via our website or by connecting with us across social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram).


Further reading

  • Click here for more information about pesticide sales and usage across Europe
  • Click here for the EU’s pesticide database


[1] EC no. 1107/2009)


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