Science - March 17, 2020

Integral research on the effects of pesticides

Albert Sikkema

For the first time, European researchers are going to do integral research on the effects of pesticides on the environment, plants, animals and people. Project coordinator Violette Geissen of WUR explains what the 15-million-euro EU project will entail.


Until now, ecotoxicologists have studied the effects of pesticides on soil life, environmentalists have assessed their effects on plants and animals, and medical scientists and toxicologists have examined their impact on our health. It is usually a matter of laboratory studied or epidemiological research. The results are fed into a model that calculates the health risks. But these models are now about 30 years old, says Violette Geissen, professor of Soil Physics and Land Management.

Geissen wants to use a new method to establish the real health risks posed by pesticides for humans, animals, plants and soil life. To this end, she has brought together a multidisciplinary team from 28 institutions in 10 EU countries. Over the next five years, the team is going to implement the project ‘Sustainable Plant Protection Transition – A global health approach’ (Sprint). The research programme has been approved and starts in September this year.

Sprint adopts a Global Health approach by measuring actual pesticide use in 10 European regions, and its effects on the health of ecosystems, food products and people. With the help of toxicological and ecotoxicological tests, the researchers hope to document the effects of cocktails of pesticides. About 2000 different pesticides are in use in Europe. Geissen: ‘We want to measure the effects of pesticide cocktails as they really occur in the food chain. We want for example to get a clear picture of what residues are present in the ecosystems and food systems of Europe,’ says Geissen.

In the Netherlands, Geissen’s group will focus the research on 10 conventional and 10 organic farms. These include potato farms and dairy farms, most of them in the province of Groningen. Geissen’s Soil Science group will collaborate on this with bee and animal researchers from WUR and with Wageningen Food Safety Research. The human health research in this project will be coordinated by the Radboud University in Nijmegen.

This EU project aims to contribute something towards new guidelines from the EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority. Geissen: ‘Maybe our holistic approach will help enable the EFSA to improve the safety regulations.’