Frans Timmermans, EU Commission Vice-President: “Without pesticides reduction, we will have a food crisis in Europe”

Credit: Creative Commons

But agribusiness groups and several member states vehemently oppose the stricter rules, and many have lobbied officials to water down proposals. The ongoing war in Ukraine has stoked fears of a food crisis, and several governments and parliamentarians have joined the opposition.

In an exclusive interview with IE, EU Commission Vice-President and European Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans explains why the legislation is essential to secure long-term food security and why it must not be sacrificed for short-term gains.

The long-awaited pesticides regulation will be presented tomorrow. Are you worried about what will happen to the overall green strategy?

Well, we have a very difficult situation because of the war in Ukraine. The war poses huge risks for food security in parts of Africa and the the Middle East. But to use these problems as a reason not to have Farm to Fork would be killing the long-term health and survivability of our agricultural sector for very short-term considerations. 

So you insist this is the right time to set targets for pesticides and fertilizer reduction, and to oblige farmers to change their way of doing agriculture? 

When will it oblige them? Not tomorrow, not this year, not next year. We are taking a perspective of 2030, 2040, 2050. And if we don’t defend that perspective now, what will be their business model? Can they continue with this level of use of pesticides? We can’t afford to postpone. We need to take measures to confront the real and urgent problems farmers have. But the measures we take should not kill our long-term vision of a healthy and sustainable farming sector.

“I want to help farmers, but I want to help them in a sustainable way”

Frans Timmermans

You know, I‘ve been around for 30 years. Whenever we propose something in the agricultural area, it‘s always the same reaction: “Postpone, derogation, not for us, for someone else.” Meanwhile, 70 per cent of EU soils are in an unhealthy condition today, and 80 per cent of these soils are agricultural land or grasslands. Those are scientific facts. We are losing pollinators so quickly. 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. €5 billion a year in Europe is directly dependent on animal pollination. Please, let us disconnect the immediate crisis from the long-term adaptation that we need.

The regulation will propose a 50 per cent reduction in the use of pesticides in Europe by 2030 and introduce binding national reduction targets. It is the first time obligatory targets will be introduced on pesticides reduction. Why are they necessary?

Well, we need binding targets because we tried before with non-binding targets, and those don‘t get us anywhere. Βinding targets give certainty to industry and to the farming sector. And by the way, our citizens are pushing us to do this. There is a huge and growing understanding that the ecocide is a direct threat to us.

The new EU law will mandate countries to slash their pesticide use in half by 2030. Credit: Alexia Barakou

Referring to the “war emergency crisis”, the Directorate-General for Agriculture of the Commission is about to allow more farming in “ecological focus areas”, giving a green light to pesticide use and no obligation to rotate crops. How does this fit with avoiding the ecocide?

Any derogation, any deviation from the long-term policy should only address immediate concerns and emergencies. The right treatment comes only after the correct diagnosis.

The problem is the logistical issue that you can’t get the grain and the maize from Ukraine and Russia to Africa and the Middle East. So that is where we need to concentrate our efforts. This recent plan is to build silos to get transport going. And here, we need to use international instruments, especially the World Food Programme, to get enough money and projects for Africa. That is our immediate urgency. To me personally, it does not make sense to use protected areas to produce even more feedstock because of this. By the way, one of the effects of this crisis and the incredible prices of fertilizers is that bio farming has become more profitable because they don‘t need Russian gas to make the fertilizers.

You are facing a strong pushback from the agribusiness sector. How do you address these concerns?

The main issue here is how to get the whole of society involved in this debate. If we keep the discussion within the group of people who have very clear interests, then of course the debate is different. I think we are on the verge of a change. Common Agricultural Policy has been something for the initiated for the last 30 to 40 years. And now you see that our citizens are waking up, like they woke up on the climate crisis. We need to prove to the agriculture community that there is profit there for them.

Young farmers get it, they really get it. And they want to be part of that. The farming community is not monolithic on this issue. But of course, the agroindustrial complex gets mobilized, and we have a very, very confrontational debate, as I seem to have all the time with them. 

I have never attacked anyone in Copa-Cogeca [the farmers’ lobby in Brussels] personally, but the President of Copa-Cogeca makes it her business to attack me as a person all the time. I wonder why this level of aggression towards me. Is it because I’m right? Could that be the reason?

Some member states argue that if Europe introduces stricter rules, the same should be applied to other countries. Do you consider this a legitimate demand?   

I do. If we have high standards on how agricultural goods are produced in Europe, then those farmers should not face unfair competition from farming products that do not have to comply with these high standards. Having said all that, we also have to be careful that we do not penalize the farmers in the poorest countries on the planet.  

The EU Commission spends a tiny amount of money on programs that support changing the traditional agricultural model. Why is that?

It’s like trying to have the biggest oil tanker on Earth change course. It takes time. The one thing I need to do immediately is to avoid that we change back to the old course, even if there are corrections now. And the point you are making is extremely valid. If you look at the total budget of the Common Agricultural Policy and then you look at what’s spent on moving in the right direction, it is such a small part of the total. We need to change it. But changing course has an immediate effect on very many farmers in the European Union. You have to have them on board. And vested interests are scaring them into believing that what we are doing is going to cost them their livelihoods. Whereas I’m deeply convinced that if we don’t do what we propose, then in 10, 15 years from now, the biodiversity issue will be so horrible that farming will not be sustainable in Europe. And then we will really have a food crisis in Europe.

Denmark taxed pesticides according to toxicity, and this has resulted in less use of the most dangerous ones. Could this be a pan-European model?

I think it is an interesting idea. But we have to take account of the fact that the difference between member states is so huge that what works in Denmark doesn’t necessarily work in Italy or in Spain. So I’m a bit cautious, but any good idea is an idea that is worth exploring.

The proposal of the pesticide reform is just the beginning of negotiations with member states and the parliament. Are you ready to fight?

I’m absolutely sure that we have the bulk of our citizens behind us. Political leaders in Europe are wary of engaging in this debate because they know it is very easy to lose voters if they are seen as not helping farmers. I want to help farmers, but I want to help them in a sustainable way, not just for tomorrow, but also for 10 years from now and 20 years from now. And for that, we have to become sustainable.

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.