EU Commission ready to fight for pesticides reduction despite fears of food loss

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The Sustainable use of pesticides regulation is the first law to address pesticide use in Europe.

The Sustainable use of pesticides regulation (SUR) will be the first binding law to come out of Farm to Fork, the EU strategy aiming to make European agriculture green and sustainable. The regulation will force governments to dramatically reduce – by 50 per cent – the overall use of pesticides in European agriculture by 2030.

Europe’s farmers will be affected, and they need to be on board for the changes to succeed, concedes Timmermans, who claims that “vested interests are scaring them into believing that what we are doing, is going to cost them their livelihoods.”

The Green Deal commissioner insists that the new policy will help farmers in the long run, not harm them. “We have a very difficult situation because of the war in Ukraine,” he told IE. “But if we use these problems as a reason not to have Farm to Fork, we will kill the long-term health and survival of our agricultural sector for very short-term considerations.”

Scientists are phrasing it even more radically. “The knee-jerk reactions after war breaks out strike me as something like deciding to set my house on fire when I’m cold to make it warmer,” Josef Settele, a lead author of the IPBES global assessment report on biodiversity, told IE. “The war has shown that many decision-makers have not really understood the importance of sustainable land use and the connection to species loss.”

Credit: Alexia Barakou
At least 15 EU member states have expressed reservations about the proposed new law.

Same sales, more toxic substances

The EU’s 2009 pesticides directive called for a sharp reduction in use, but it has proved toothless and largely been ignored by member states. Timmermans told IE that non-binding targets “don’t get us anywhere,” adding: “Binding targets give certainty to industry and to the farming sector. There is a huge and growing understanding that the ecocide is a direct threat to us.”

While 937 active pesticide substances are not approved in the EU, 453 others are. Pesticide sales volumes have remained almost the same for the past decade. In parallel, most active substances are toxic in much lower concentration than before, according to ecologist Matthias Liess, from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig: “It means that actually, more toxicity has been spread.”

Without radical change, scientists warn that biodiversity will be irreparably damaged. The clock is ticking, and there is no more time to lose in turning this around, they say. Excessive pesticide use is causing insect and bird populations to decline, and soil and water to be increasingly contaminated, while it poses multiple risks to human health.

Insects disappear at “alarming rate”

“We are in a biodiversity crisis. Species are going extinct faster than they have for 65 million years, since the meteor wiped out the dinosaurs. And is accelerating,” Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex in England, told Investigate Europe. Insects is his specialty. Not only do insects make up two-thirds of all known species, but they are the ones that enable other living organisms, not least by pollination.

The unchecked growth of industrial-scale agriculture, and its reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, means vital insect habitats and natural ecosystems are under attack. According to Timmermans, 70 per cent of EU soils are in an unhealthy condition today, and 80 per cent of these soils are agricultural land or grasslands.

Chemicals and agribusiness are not the only culprits, however. Climate change is another key driver, according to scientists. But together, they form a looming disaster.

Flying insects are disappearing at an “alarming rate”, according to Kent Wildlife Trust, a British conservation charity. They found that the number of flying insects in the UK countryside that get hit by cars plummeted almost 60 per cent between 2004 and 2021. These ‘splatometer’ surveys complement research elsewhere. A 2017 Dutch-German study of protected areas in Germany documented a 75 per cent loss in the insect population in 27 years.

Less wheat from Ukraine

On the surface, governments agree that pesticides are to be used only as a last resort and that this means less must be used. But they are acutely aware that many farmers are struggling with deep economic uncertainty in the wake of skyrocketing energy and fertilizer prices.

On top of this, the war in Ukraine has spread uncertainty about food production globally, as Ukraine is a main provider of wheat and many other cereals to the world market. Since the Russian invasion on February 24, it seems both politicians in the European Parliament and several governments have been swayed by the argument that less pesticides means smaller crops, and by a call from farmers’ organizations and the pesticide lobby to produce more, not less, in these uncertain times.

East-west divide

In the latest debate among EU agricultural ministers, at least 15 countries expressed doubts about the most recent draft. Only Germany’s agriculture ministry, now headed by the Green Party, openly supports the 50 per cent reduction goal by 2030 – a stark contrast to the previous government’s actions on environmental regulations.

Austria, Finland and Czech Republic are all demanding the reduction targets take into account national circumstances and previous achievements. “We expect an intensive discussion on the topic. In practice, it will be very difficult to meet this ambitious target,” the Czech government’s spokesperson Vojtěch Bílý told Investigate Europe.

When a draft of the regulation was leaked in March, 12 central and eastern European governments protested the binding targets it set out. Meanwhile, at least 15 countries have asked the Commission to introduce emergency exceptions to the upcoming Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), according to a source close to the negotiations. Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski revealed in June he was pushing for a series of derogations, including to allow cultivation, and possible pesticide use, on protected areas, and to skip the “integrated pest management” principle of rotating crops.

The Ukraine war: Stop or go?

While facing strong opposition from member states and the agribusiness lobby, for Frans Timmermans, the Ukraine war is a reason to push more, not less for regulation. He argues that implementation of the Farm to Fork strategy and a reduction of pesticide use is exactly what will save biodiversity, agriculture and the ability to feed the world. “We are losing pollinators so quickly,” he told IE. “That is a bigger threat to our long-term food security than the war in Ukraine, because 75 per cent of top food crops depend on animal pollination. Please, let us disconnect the immediate crisis from the long-term adaptation that we need.”

Investigate Europe’s new investigative series, “Silent Death: Europe’s deep-rooted pesticide problem and a biodiversity crisis”, will be released with media partners all over Europe on Friday 24 June.