Environmental campaigner loses Court of Appeal battle against crop-spraying

July 8, 2009

From the Daily Telegraph, 7 July 2009 (Report by Caroline Gammell)

Farmers can continue using pesticides near people's home after an environmental campaigner lost her seven-year legal battle to highlight the health risks of long-term exposure to crop spraying.

Georgina Downs has always insisted that residents living close to fields sprayed with pesticides are in danger of suffering from chronic illnesses such as cancer, asthma and neurological conditions.

Last year the High Court concluded that she had produced "solid evidence that residents have suffered harm to their health" and that the Government was unlawfully not following a European safety directive.

However, the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal. Her legal battle is estimated to have cost Miss Downs an estimated £100,000.

Outside court she said: "This judgement is a complete whitewash. I think it may well go down in history as being the most bizarre and inaccurate judgement to have ever come out of the Court of Appeal.

"The Government could not have wished for a better result than if it wrote the judgement itself.

"The fact remains that there has never been any assessment for the long-term exposure for those who live, work or got to school near pesticide sprayed fields.

"I continue to maintain (that this) is an absolute scandal considering that crop-spraying has been a predominant feature of agriculture for over 50 years."

At the age of 11, Miss Downs said she started to suffer flu like symptoms, sore throats and blistering in the mouth after growing up near a farm in Chichester, West Sussex.

Five years ago she produced a film claiming that pesticides were causing rashes, burning eyes and noses, headaches, burnt vocal chords as well as serious illnesses such as myalgic encephalopathy (ME).

Last November, Mr Justice Collins said there was "a very strong case for a buffer zone” between spraying and human habitation.

He ruled that the Government had failed to comply with a European directive to protect people from the possible harmful effects of exposure to toxic chemicals.

The judge ordered Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, to rethink his department's approach to the way crop spraying was controlled and how risks to human health were assessed.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) challenged the ruling and yesterday the Court of Appeal overturned Mr Justice Collins' decision.

Lord Justice Sullivan sitting with Lady Justice Arden and Lord Justice Keene ruled that Mr Benn had been following guidance that gave priority to human health.

They said that although Miss Downs was "a most effective campaigner", she had no formal scientific or medical qualifications.

The panel said Mr Justice Collins's reference to "solid evidence" was substituting his own evaluation for that of Defra.

Lord Justice Sullivan said a balance needed to be struck between the interests of the individual and the community as a whole.

He ruled that Defra was entitled to conclude that it had achieved that balance by compliance with the terms of the European Directive.

Miss Downs, 35, said the appeal judges had ignored her evidence and used old official reports to reach their findings.

She said would petition the House of Lords for a hearing at the country's highest court.

After the judgement, Mr Benn said: "We welcome the Court of Appeal's judgement that the Government has complied with its obligations under European law.

"In controlling pesticides, the protection of people's health is our priority. That is why we are already working to better assess exposure to pesticides so that we can continue to improve our models.

"In view of the issues raised by Georgina Downs and the new European directive, we will consult this autumn on how to give people access to farmers' spray records, how to give residents prior notification of spraying activity, and what else should be included in our National Action Plan.

The Crop Protection Association said the judgment was a victory for "common sense", enabling farmers to provide an adequate supply of food.

The National Farmers' Union added that farmers were already confined by strict conditions over crop spraying and "any additional regulation would add further unnecessary burdens".



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