Plant protection products

Bauer brings out pesticides in his fieldClick to enlarge
Some nine kilogrammes of plant protection products are spread one hectare of farmland every year
Source: Penny Williams /

Chemicals enter the environment every day, but there is hardly a substance group that is used with more purpose and in such large amounts than plant protection products.

What are plant protection products?

Plant protection products are chemical or biological products which are used to protect plants or plant products from harm caused by animals (insects and rodents, for example) or diseases such as fungal infestation. Products which are used to eliminate unwanted field weeds are also in the group of plant protection products. The term “pesticides” is often used instead of plant protection product; pesticides include biocides.

Plant protection products contain one or more active substances and other co-formulants (substances which are supposed to have a positive effect on the production, storage or use of a product). The product itself is used in various forms, for example as spraying agents for seed treatment or in granular form. According to the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety, 691 plant protection products with a total of 258 active substances were authorised in Germany in 2011. Sales of plant protection products were 43,000 tonnes in the same year.

Plant protection products in the environment: No effect without side effects

About one half of total land area in Germany is used for agriculture (Source: Federal Statistical Office, 2009). Each year an average of around nine kilogrammes of plant protection products and 2.5 kilos of active substances are applied on agricultural land.

The use of plant protection products in agriculture is widespread, and they are applied to the environment in relatively large amounts in order to protect plants against pests (animals, plants, fungi, bacteria or viruses). Plant protection products are toxic to these pests. However, their effect is not limited to pests only and can harm other animals and plants as well. These organisms can come into contact with plant protection products on fields as well as in surrounding areas, because spray mist or abrasive dust from treated seeds can be transported to surrounding areas when a plant protection product is spread on a field. Rainwater run-off and drain pipes can also introduce them into bodies of water. Plant protection products can also be leached to groundwater – the main source of our drinking water.

The use of plant protection products is thus associated with environmental risks. Before a product is authorised these risks must be weighed against the benefits of use, that is, the protection of a cultivated crop.

Federal Environment Agency's responsibilities

Plant protection products may only be used if they have been authorised. In Germany, the legal basis for the authorisation of plant protection products is Regulation (EC) No. 1107/2009 and the Plant Protection Act. The Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) is the licensing authority. Other institutions which are involved in the authorisation procedure are the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), the Julius Kühn-Institut (JKI) and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). The Federal Environment Agency's role is to evaluate the impact of the product on the ecosystem and ground water.

Plant protection products may not have any "unacceptable effect" on the environment. The UBA issues approval for authorisation only if its assessment concludes that proper application of the product can guarantee this condition. Potential effects on bodies of water (surface water, ground water), soil and air as well as the ecosystem and biodiversity must be taken into account. The impact of the use of a plant protection product is only acceptable if its benefit outweighs possible negative effects on the environment. In accordance with the Plant Protection Act, the UBA must agree to any decision reached concerning authorisation; in other words, formal authorisation of a product is not possible in Germany without UBA’s consent.

The Federal Environment Agency reviews the authorisation of plant protection products in Germany and is also involved in the EU review of active substances. The tasks of the UBA also cover other issues related to plant protection products and environmental protection. It advises the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety on environmental matters which concern plant protection products, is part of the process of drafting laws, regulations and guidelines, and is also involved in shaping the national action plan for the sustainable application of plant protection products. The Federal Environment Agency develops and refines evaluation procedures, carries out application-oriented environmental research, and provides public information on current issues of relevance to plant protection products.

The Federal Environment Agency’s aim is to protect the environment against the risks and effects of plant protection products and to contribute to ecological sustainability in plant protection.