The European Parliament has voted to tighten rules on pesticide use and ban at least 22 chemicals deemed harmful to human health.
The UK government, the Conservatives and the National Farmers' Union all oppose the new rules, saying they could hit yields and increase food prices. The rules have not yet been approved by the 27 member states' governments.
The draft law would ban substances that can cause cancer or that can harm human reproduction or hormones.
Under the new rules, any use of pesticides near schools, parks or hospitals would be either banned or severely restricted. Wholesale aerial crop-spraying would also be banned. The EU has stated throughout that the aim of this legislation is to ensure a high level of both human and animal health protection and that of the environment while, at the same time, safeguarding the competitiveness of EU agriculture.
The 22 substances are linked to cancer, can damage the reproductive and nervous systems, and also disrupt hormones.
The argument over their use has been raging for years, and the battle to get the ban approved in the European Parliament saw a huge lobbying campaign by farming groups as well as the chemical companies that manufacture pesticides.
Dire warnings were issued about the collapse in Europe's agricultural production should the legislation go ahead - a 100% fall in carrot production in the UK alone; a devastating effect on pea production; problems for farmers growing wheat and potatoes.
One particular bug-bear is the change in the legislation from an assessment of risk to one of hazard - in other words, if there is any threat to health whatsoever, a pesticide will be banned.
Neil Parrish is a British Conservative MEP, chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development in the European Parliament - and a farmer.
He says the new legislation is badly thought through. "I think it goes too far," he says. "I think it's taking chemicals off the market which, if they are used properly, are not a problem. He adds: "These chemicals have a hazard, but if they are properly used under a risk basis, and there are proper withdrawal periods, then we can grow our crops."
Buffer zones would also be mandatory to protect aquatic environments and drinking water from pesticides.
The Soil Association backs the EU's bid to cut the use of chemicals it says can cause cancer and infertility.
Italian Green MEP Monica Frassoni said the vote was "a victory for the Greens and environmentalists, who managed collectively to resist enormous pressure from the industry".
National Farmers' Union deputy president Meurig Raymond said The lack of sound science behind the plans is a major concern," he said.
"We cannot support measures which reduce the tools available to farmers and growers to produce crops and that could ultimately jeopardise future food supply and security."
British Labour MEP Glenis Willmott however pointed to an important safeguard clause in the package. It says a substance needed to tackle a serious danger to plant health can be approved for up to five years, even if that substance does not meet the new safety criteria.
The proposals have already been scaled back after Europe's pesticides industry warned they would remove from the market products that had been used without problems for years. Most pesticides currently on the market will be valid until at least 2015, giving pesticide manufacturers time to reformulate their products. Even so, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said "We are being asked to agree to something here when nobody knows what the impact will be.
While we have managed to secure some improvements surrounding the use of certain pesticides, the UK does not support these proposals."
Labour and Conservative MPs are calling for a full impact assessment of the proposed changes before the measures are approved.
Conservative Robert Sturdy MEP said: "We must have safer pesticides that are used responsibly but banning products that are safe when used correctly will add to already volatile food prices and food shortages.
The outcome of the vote was as follows:
Both compromise packages were voted through. The vote on an impact assessment in relation to the Regulation was not allowed to take place as this had not been tabled at the 1st reading of the legislation in November 2007.
The highlights of the Compromise package re: the Regulation text are as follows:
-Substances banned - the following active substances: POPs, PBT, vPvB, CMR 1&2 and endocrine disruptors (ED) will all be banned. But there will be a derogation for endocrine disruptors which would allow them to be authorised for use for five years if they are required to control a serious danger to plant health. This is the same as the proposal made by the Member States.
-Endocrine disruptors -Throughout the process there has been a great deal of discussion about the definition of endocrine disruptors. This is the main bone of contention for the British Government which has stated throughout that a proper (i.e scientific) definition of endocrine disruption has not been established. The trialogue discussions sought to introduce an interim definition of ED such that substances which are judged to be Carcinogenic 3 (C 3) Reproductive Toxicity 3 (R3), shall be considered to have endocrine properties.
-The compromise package has removed bee toxicity, immunotoxicity and neurotoxicity from the list of cut-off criteria. They will now be evaluated in the risk assessment process.
-If an active substance is considered to be a candidate for substitution it can be authorised for use for seven years with the option of re-applying for authorisation for another seven years.
The Member States will now adopt the Regulation as amended by the EP's compromise. This is likely to take place within the next month. It will then be published by the European Union in the spring and implemented by the Member States towards the end of 2010.
Source: BBC and press release