Data: The true scale of Europe‘s pesticide problem remains hidden

In the past months, Investigate Europe reporters have conducted extensive research on pesticide use in Europe and its impacts on biodiversity. We actively searched for detailed data on pesticide use and on the decline of insect and bird populations. But decisive figures for a profound understanding of the problem are not provided by European authorities. Nevertheless, we did our best to illustrate the problem with the available public data.

Industrial agriculture and its poisons

Eurostat collects data on important aspects of agriculture for European countries. But pesticide use hardly features. Eurostat only provides figures on pesticide sales, which only gives some indication about how much they are used. The most recent data is for 2020, published by Eurostat in May. EU states are currently not obliged to provide this data, although it is hoped a pending new statistics regulation will change this and finally offer a complete view of Europe’s pesticide usage. As such, the Eurostat database only contains figures for 16 EU member states. Eleven others did not provide any information or submitted just partial data. Among them were Greece, Spain, Poland and Estonia.

Nevertheless, a trend can be seen. Chemical companies sold almost as many pesticides in the 16 EU member states in 2020 as they did in 2011. Due to the incomplete data, we decided to use one of the few other public sources on pesticides and industrial agriculture, the United Nations database FAO STAT. Although it relies partly on Eurostat figures, it also requests data directly from UN member states.

The figures help to give an initial impression. However, they are not clear-cut, because they only indicate the number of pesticides sprayed on fields. Pesticides differ greatly in toxicity – and in how dangerous individual substances are for the environment. For example, a few drops of some pesticide active ingredients are enough for one hectare, while other agents must be sprayed on a large scale to destroy pests.

The EU classifies pesticides in different categories. For example, it has created the category “Candidates for Substitution”. Although these substances are authorised, they are actually intended to be replaced by other, less harmful agents. There are currently 54 substances on the list of these substances for which alternatives are recommended. However, an analysis of official EU data shows that this is not happening in many EU countries:

One of these agents is the weedkiller flufenacet, which pollutes groundwater and drinking water. Although it has been designated as a candidate for substitution since 2004 because of its “unfavourable properties” for the environment, its sales have doubled since 2014 and increased by 32 per cent in 2020 alone.

Pesticide profiteers

The pesticide business is extremely lucrative. In recent years, the sales of the five largest producers have increased steadily. Among them are two German companies, Bayer CropScience and BASF, as well as a Swiss company, Syngenta, which was taken over by the Chinese group ChemChina for $43 billion in 2017.

Other large pesticide producers have their headquarters in Asia, including Sumitomo Chemical (Japan), Jiangsu Yangnong (China) and Adama (Israel), which is also owned by ChemChina. Due to disclosure requirements, only limited conclusions can be drawn from the balance sheets of these companies about turnover related to pesticides.

A business with deadly consequences

There is a link, but the extent to which the massive use of pesticides leads to the decline of animal populations is difficult to prove. Detailed data on the regional use of pesticides and the development of animal populations are usually lacking. Nevertheless, it can be documented on the basis of several studies that, especially in rural areas, animal populations have declined massively in recent years.

In the course of our own research, we at Investigate Europe selected two studies whose data we have presented below.

In 2017, a group of researchers published a study showing that the biomass of flying insects had declined by almost 75 per cent since 1989. For this, the researchers used a standardised protocol to measure the total biomass of insects using malaise traps, which they set up in 63 German nature reserves between 1989 and 2016. This allowed them to draw conclusions about the status and development of local insect populations. This graph shows a simplified form of the study data, the average biomass per day found in the traps in a corresponding year:

As insects disappear, so do birds. “Almost all bird species use insects as food for their young,” explains the European head of Bird Life International, Ariel Brunner. Their data show that since 1980, the population of all 168 common bird species in Europe has dropped by 18 per cent. In the same period, the population of the 39 bird species that live in agricultural landscapes fell by more than half. “This shows that our agricultural systems are killing them,” says Brunner. French biologist Benoït Fontaine adds: “This is a huge decline, a disaster. We are heading faster and faster towards a wall, and we are accelerating.” The following graph clearly shows how much more the population of farmland birds has declined than the population of all common bird species:

A new kind of agriculture

Industrial agriculture has created a system in which many farmers now find themselves trapped. The massive use of pesticides, the spraying of large quantities of fertilisers and a tightly timed crop rotation are, according to many, necessary to continue cultivating huge areas of arable land. But farmers all over Europe are showing that there is another way. The proportion of organic farms has increased steadily in recent years. In Austria, one out of four hectares of arable land is already farmed organically, and the proportion is similarly high in Estonia and Sweden. In contrast, there are hardly any organically farmed fields in Ireland (1.63 per cent), Bulgaria (2.34 per cent) and Romania (2.86 per cent).