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Persistence pays – lower risks from pesticides in Sweden  

Consistent regulation over a 15-year period has proven that government policies can reduce pesticide use, as well as the risks to health and the environment. George Ekström and Peter Bergkvist of the Swedish National Chemicals Inspectorate (KEMI) report on the strategies and the results achieved.

Convinced of the importance of reducing pesticide risks and reliance for both its population and its environment, the Swedish government adopted a far-sighted policy in 1986. The programme brought together all the key actors in agriculture to work together for substantial reductions of pesticide use by weight, and to adopt less hazardous pest management strategies. Figures from its third five-year period show that while it becomes progressively more difficult to cut the quantity of pesticides applied, the target is within reach. Importantly, however, the reduction in risks has exceeded the goals set.

Reduction goals 1997–2001
The third national risk reduction period has five major goals(1):

  • The magnitude of risk indicators used for monitoring the first two stages (1986-1990, and 1991-1996) should diminish compared to the 1996 values. The decrease in risk indicator values should be larger than the decrease in quantities of active substance over the same period.
  • No residues of non-approved (unregistered) pesticides in domestically grown fruits and vegetables.
  • No residues above maximum residue limits in domestically grown fruits and vegetables.
  • No detectable residues of pesticides in ground water. The concentration of individual pesticides should not exceed 0.1 micrograms per litre. The combined concentration should not exceed 0.5 micrograms per litre.
  • No detectable residues in surface or ground water intended for human consumption.

Swedish farmers’ actions
In 1994, the President of the Federation of Swedish Farmers (LRF) made public a 100-point programme towards environmentally friendly agriculture(2). In 1997, the Federation launched a pesticide policy for the year 2000(3). The policy consisted of three main issues: reducing chemical pesticide use, precautionary choice of pesticides, and minimising food residues. According to the policy, the use, expressed as the quantity of active ingredients, should be no more than 25% of the 1981-1985 level by 2000. The use of substances with unsuitable environmental and health properties should diminish radically. Information systems that facilitate farmers’ choices of methods or pesticides having the least environmental impact should be devised. No traceable residues of pesticides should be present in ground water, drinking water, fodder or foodstuffs. 
    Also in 1997, the Federation and the Swedish Farmers’ Supply and Crop Marketing Organization (Lantmännen) jointly initiated a collaborative effort with IVT – the Association of Swedish Plant and Wood Protection Industries, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, the Swedish Board of Agriculture, and the National Chemicals Inspectorate(4) to produce information and advice for farmers on: 

  • use of safety instructions;
  • personal protection gear;
  • safe storage of pesticide stocks;
  • safe spray equipment;
  • safe filling-up procedures for sprayers;
  • safety distances to dwellings and watercourses;
  • safe cleaning of emptied sprayers;
  • safe cleaning and disposal of empty containers.

Quantity reduction 1986–2000
The Swedish government and parliament agreed the national pesticide reduction programmes in 1986. The government agencies made responsible for the design and implementation of the programmes were: the Swedish Board of Agriculture, National Food Administration (both under Ministry of Agriculture), the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Chemicals Inspectorate (both under Ministry of the Environment). The period 1981-1985 was selected as a baseline period for monitoring of reduction results. The first five-year (1986-1990) period resulted in a 47% reduction, close to the intended 50% reduction in quantities of active substance sold for use in agriculture and horticulture. The second five-year period (1991-1995) added to the success and resulted in a total reduction of 68% compared to the goal of 75% reduction(5). Measured over five-year intervals, the quantities sold have decreased from 23,000 tonnes of active substance during the reference period (1981-1985) to 9,300 tonnes between 1996 and 2000 (Table 1)(6,7). 

Table 1. Reduction in quantities and acute health risks 
Period Sold quantity of active substance tons Reduction, % of baseline period Acute toxicity equivalents  Risk reduction % of baseline period
1981-1985 (baseline) 23 000  ---  38 000  ---
1991-1995  9 000  61  11 000  71
1996-2000  9 300  60  8 700  77

Indicators show risks reduced
In 1996, acute toxicity equivalents were used as a measure of risk reduction progress. The acute toxicity equivalency is a simple way of converting quantities of active substance sold (or used) to hazard-weighted units. The equivalents were calculated by dividing the quantity of active substance sold (in tonnes) with the LD50 value of the substance (in milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight)(8). Multiplying by 1000 gave numbers of the same order of magnitude as used for the quantities. Calculated as acute toxicity equivalents, the health risks from use of pesticides in agriculture and horticulture decreased from 38,000 units in 1981-1985 to 8,700 in 1996-2000, a reduction of 77%(9).
    The Swedish Parliament decided in 1997 that the health and environmental risks from the use of pesticides in agriculture and horticulture should be reduced even further. Existing risks should be more strongly assessed and quantified. The National Chemicals Inspectorate consequently elaborated a set of human health and environmental scores and indicators to be used as an additional measure, complementary to quantities of active substance, number of doses used and size of sprayed areas(10). The human health risk indicator is calculated by multiplying the quantity of each individual active substance sold by a human health index score and subsequently adding them all together. Environmental risk indicators are calculated in the same way using a set of environmental index scores.
    Based on indicators, the environmental risks in 2000 were reduced by 63% compared to the average for the baseline period (1981-1985) and by 77% for health risks (Figures 1 and 2).

Table 2. Reduction of residues in selected domestic food crops(1) 
Period ( 2)  Samples analysed  Samples with residues
1981-1985  3369  232 (6.9%)
1990-1994  3975  245 (6.2%)
1995-2000  3734  66 (1.8%)
1. Apples, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce (head), pears, potatoes, squash, strawberries, tomatoes
2. Periods differ from those in Table 1

Reduction of food residues
Pesticide residues in samples of domestically grown apples, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, pears, potatoes, squash, strawberries and tomatoes decreased substantially from 1981-1995 to 1995-2000 (Table 2). Out of a total of 3734 samples of these commodities, 66 contained detectable residues. Six samples exceeded the maximum residue limits(11,12,13,14,15,16,17). 

Drinking water contamination
The Swedish Water and Wastewater Association recently collected and compiled data on pesticide contamination of municipal water sources(18). A total of 34 municipalities had found pesticides in a drinking water source. Table 3 summarises the results. The pesticides detected are all herbicides, of which only two are in current use. According to the Swedish food legislation, detectable pesticides in drinking water constitute a violation. 

Table 3. Pesticide levels in drinking water sources 
Pesticide  Current registration status  No. municipal sources over 0.1mg/(*1)  Maximum reported, mg/l(1)  No. private wells with residues(2)  Maximum reported, mg/l(2)
Dichlobenil (3)  Banned (1994)  29  2.5 (2000)  10  0.96 
Atrazine  Banned (1989)  0.42 (1999)  1.3
Atrazine (4) " 0.5 (2000)  0.66
Atrazine (5) ‘’  0.12 (1999)  <0.05 
2,4-D  Voluntarily withdrawn (1991)  0.5 (1997) 
Mecoprop  Discontinued  1.0 (1998)  <0.05
Mecoprop-P  Approved  0.4 (1998) - -
Metribuzin  Approved  0.27 (2000)  - -
Bentazone  Approved  1.0
MCPA  Approved  <0.05
Terbuthylazine  Approved  1.0
Diclorprop  Discontinued   1 <0.05
1. Swedish Water and Wastewater Association, 2001, 2. National Food Administration, 1998, 3. analysed as 2,6-dichlorobenzamide (BAM), 4. analyzed as desethylatrazine, 5. analyzed as desisopropylatrazine, *microgram per litre

Remaining reliance
Statistics Sweden has introduced the ‘hectare-dose’ as a measure for the reliance on chemical pesticides in agriculture(19). The hectare-dose is defined as the quantity of active substance used per hectare. The number of hectare-doses thus reflects the magnitude or intensity of spraying. The number of hectare-doses is calculated by dividing the sold amount of each active substance with the recommended dose per hectare. 
    In 2000, the total number of hectare-doses sold for agricultural use was 4.3 million: 2.3 million herbicides (as active substances), 1.4 million fungicides and 0.6 million insecticides. The average number of hectare-doses sold during the baseline period 1981-1985 was slightly less than 1.6. The current official limit is maximum 1.2 doses per hectare. After a decline in the beginning of the 1990s, the number of doses per hectare has again risen to 1.6 doses per hectare. 
    The reason for the increase in pesticide use per hectare has not been established, but may be the result of Sweden’s membership to the European Union and the accompanying set of new rules for Swedish agriculture(20). 

Since the mid 1980s, the pesticide reduction programmes have helped the Swedish government gain many achievements in reducing the risks from pesticide use. Wide stakeholder involvement has helped facilitate one of the most progressive pesticide policy initiatives in the world. 

1. Emmerman A, Reduction of health and environmental risks from the use of pesticides: Results of the national action programme 1996-1998, and proposed goals for the year 2001, Swedish Board of Agriculture, Report 2000:4 (in Swedish).
2. Farmers of the world: close to the problem, close to the solution, Federation of Swedish Farmers’ advertisement in Tomorrow – Global Environmental Business 1994 4(2).
3. Pesticide policy for the Federation of Swedish Farmers (LRF), February 1997.
4. The voluntary campaign ‘Safe Pesticide Use’,, Federation of Swedish Farmers, 23 May 2000.
5. Emmerman 2000, Op. Cit. 1.
6. Ekström G, Hemming H, Palmborg M, Swedish pesticide risk reduction 1981-1995: Food residues, health hazard, and reported poisonings, Rev Environ Contam Toxicol, 1996, 147, 119-147.
7. Bengtsson M, Bergkvist P, Quantities of pesticides sold in 2000, National Chemicals Inspectorate, October 2001.
8. The WHO recommended classification of pesticides by hazard, and guidelines to classification 2000-2002, WHO/PCS/01.5, World Health Organization, 2001.
9. Ekstrom 1996, Op. Cit. 6.
10. OECD survey on national pesticide risk indicators 1999-2000,, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
11. Ekstrom 1996, Op. Cit. 6.
12. Andersson A, Pålsheden H, Bergh T, Jansson A, Pesticide residues in food of plant origin 1995, National Food Administration, 1996, Report No 10.
13. Andersson A, Pålsheden H, Bergh T, Jansson A, Pesticide residues in food of plant origin 1996, National Food Administration, 1997, Report No 25.
14. Andersson A, Pålsheden H, Bergh T, Jansson A, Pesticide residues in food of plant origin 1997, National Food Administration, 1998, Report No 13.
15. Andersson A, Jansson A, Jahrl S, Pesticide residues in food of plant origin 1998, National Food Administration, 1999, Report No 10.
16. Andersson A, Jansson A, Strandler H S, The Swedish monitoring of pesticide residues in food of plant origin 1999, National Food Administration, 2000, Report No 12.
17. Andersson A, Jansson A, Jahrl S, The Swedish monitoring of pesticide residues in food of plant origin 2000: EC and national report, National Food Administration, 2001, Report No 16.
18. Pesticides in drinking water resources,, Swedish Water and Wastewater Association, 11 October 2001 (in Swedish).
19. Pesticides in Swedish agriculture – Number of hectare-doses in the year 2000,, Statistics Sweden, 2000 (in Swedish with English summary and subtitles).
20. Johansson O, Mejersjö E-M, Environmental impact in Sweden from the European Union Common Agriculture Policy, Swedish Board of Agriculture, Report 1999:28 (in Swedish with English summary).

George Ekstrom and Peter Bergkvist work with national pesticide registration and international pesticide risk reduction issues at KEMI – The Swedish National Chemicals Inspectorate, P.O.Box 1384, SE-171 27 Solna, Sweden,,,,

[This article first appeared in Pesticides News No. 54, December 2001, pages 10-11]

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