Pekka Pesonen, EU farmers’ lobby boss: “No ban on pesticides if there are no alternatives”

Credit: Reimagine Europa

As a part of the Green Deal, the EU countries adopted the Farm to Fork strategy, a series of measures aiming at greening the agriculture sector, including cutting pesticides by 50 per cent. What is Copa-Cogeca’s position on this?

We supported the Green Deal in general because we recognize the need to produce food in a more sustainable manner. But in order to go for a 50 percent reduction in pesticides, we need alternatives, and more [EU action] in the area of technologies and authorizing.

Within the Farm to Fork, the Commission has proposed to reduce pesticides, antibiotics and fertilizers. We have said: “Okay, let’s talk about it.” We haven’t said that it’s wrong or unacceptable. But how can we reach this target? Especially now, when we are supposed to produce more?

With the recent crisis [blocked wheat exports from Ukraine due to Russia’s war] we have to secure European food supplies. We don’t have empty plates in Europe, here it’s more about price. The more volatile the food prices are, the more dissatisfied people are.

The bigger impact will be in third countries: when prices in some commodities go up, typically wheat and typically in Egypt, will they be able to afford it? And what will the political consequence be?

The last time this happened, we had the Arab Spring. Remember 2015, we had 1.5 million refugees coming [to Europe] from mainly northern Africa and Syria, and it became a major existential crisis for the union.

The legal proposal for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation (SUR), with the binding pesticide reduction targets, was supposed to be presented in March but the Commission postponed it until June. Did Copa-Cogeca push for this?

We were more interested in the topic itself, rather than the timing. I don’t think we actually called for the postponement, no, we never did. But we understand the Commission’s reasons to postpone it, it was a good decision. The political situation is complicated, with the war, price fluctuation, food inflation, general inflation… You have to consider the political message: the Commission may seem out of touch with normal citizens if it pushes a progressive agenda at a time of crisis.

One of the main arguments against the upcoming pesticides law is that it will lead to higher food prices. Is there a clear correlation?

Not always, but I would say 90 percent of the time. When you cut down on pesticides, the yields usually go down. And consequently, the average cost per unit goes up. That is why we need higher prices for organic.

That logic is very difficult to get across to most of the decision makers, they simply think that we can suspend pesticides and continue happily ever after.

We have been calling for a comprehensive impact assessment on the whole Farm to Fork strategy, what are the consequences for output, how will it affect competitiveness and farming income? The Commission has refused. It has come up with a salami tactic, with one impact assessment on pesticides, one on antibiotics and another on fertilizer regulation.

According to [studies from] the USDA [US Department of Agriculture], some academics in Europe and also a study that we supported, the income and output will go down, compared to our competitors. We don’t like it.

Do you agree with the premice that sustainable agriculture means cutting pesticides?

We don’t use pesticides just to use them, they are usually very expensive. We say “as much as necessary, as little as possible”. What is important is that you can’t ban product unless you have an alternative solution.

If a pesticide is proven to be risky for human health, then you have to get away from it, full stop. It’s really straightforward, black and white. Science based evidence is crucial, especially the role of EFSA [The European Food Safety Agency], which we have supported all along.

The lobby watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory has written several reports about Copa-Cogeca, criticising your priviliged access to the European Commission and aggressive lobbying in the European Parliament. What is your view on it?

This is absolute rubbish. I consider CEO a lobby organization. And if they wouldn’t try to influence MEPs, they wouldn’t be doing a proper job. Their reports [about Copa-Cogeca] are also lobby actions, they try to influence MEPs in the same way that we do with our letters.

Of course, from their perspective, we always have too much access. If we talk to one single MEP, they say that that is too much.

Most of these NGOs, like Greenpeace, have better resources than us. Also, we don’t get any support from the EU, which some NGOs still do. We are financed through our member organizations.