Lars Neumeister, Foodwatch report author: “A tax on pesticide sales would be very useful”

The stranglehold that the industry has over producers is laid bare in the report, Locked-in Pesticides – The European Union’s dependency on harmful pesticides and how to overcome it, published today. Lars Neumeister has worked on pesticide issues since 1998. He is the author/co-author of over 70 publications and has worked on a number of related projects with civil society groups, industry and sustainability schemes.

The new Foodwatch report states that the use of pesticides causes more economic harm than good. On what do you base this statement?

On the costs incurred for society. This starts with the expenses to create legal regulations, the controls and the many thousands of tests for residues in food, soil and groundwater. Then there are the billions of euros spent on filtering drinking water, pest resistance and the loss of pollination due to insect mortality. Even if this cannot be quantified precisely, we are talking about sums that may exceed the turnover from pesticides.

“Fruit and vegetable producers are virtually forced to use pesticides in order to meet the cosmetic requirements of the supermarkets.”

So why do the states and the farmers stick to it anyway? They are not stupid either.

Of course not, and farmers certainly can’t be blamed for that. At the core is the belief that we can control nature with technical means. Many lack the experience or confidence in biological pest control and in measures that avoid too many weeds and fungal pathogens. Behind them are the winners of this system, which is only designed for mass production, where the big buyers of agricultural commodities, the stock exchange and the big retail chains dictate the prices. Another example of dependency: many fruit and vegetable producers are virtually forced to use pesticides in order to meet the cosmetic requirements of the supermarkets.

Many farmers we spoke to are trying to reduce the use of poisons. But almost all of them say that they cannot imagine a complete renunciation because yields would then drop to such an extent that they would lose their income. Is this fear not justified?

The fear is completely justified in the current production system. Most farmers have no control over the price of their products. It is as if a craftsman first does the work and the customer says afterwards how much he wants to pay. In agriculture, this leads on the one hand to extreme rationalisation and on the other hand to maximisation of yield. With high consequential costs for society.

Most farmers see themselves as entrepreneurs, and that’s the way it is for them. They invest without knowing exactly how much they can earn…

This is the general understanding, but it leads to market failure on many levels. The food market does not function like other markets. Most products are traded as commodities and it is very difficult for an individual entrepreneur to distinguish himself through special quality. Put simply, for the commodity market, every grain of wheat with the right ingredients is the same, no matter how much labour and care has gone into its production. Agricultural prices are also extremely volatile and often not determined by supply and demand, but rather by speculation and trading power, as is the case now following the outbreak of the Ukraine war.

A graphic from the Foodwatch report, Locked-in Pesticides – The European Union’s dependency on harmful pesticides and how to overcome it.

Most farmers consider herbicides in particular to be indispensable, because without them weed control would require far more work and machine use.

That is true. The use of herbicides is primarily a rationalisation measure that is more cost-effective than mechanical weed control. But that is a simplistic view. There is a vicious circle: the use of pesticides and especially herbicides has led to a simplification of farming systems. This, in turn, requires pesticide use to sustain itself. We need to prevent weeds much more, with better crop rotations, more arable grass, inter-cropping and so on.

Even before 1900, before the arrival of herbicides in the field, there were farms that had no weed problem at all. But the current conventional farm cannot diversify its production so easily – for that, a rethink must take place at all levels.

The central objection to phasing out the use of pesticides is that the subsequent decline in harvests would lead to the need to clear even more forests for crop cultivation.

This nonsense has been spread by industry-affiliated scientists and the pesticide industry for decades, and there is no empirical evidence to support it.

“It is pure utopia to think that we can continue to produce and eat as before”

But without pesticides, the yield per hectare drops. Or does it?

You can’t say that as a general rule. Fertilisers are responsible for high yields, but also for many susceptibilities to certain pests. You cannot fertilise at the same level in many types of crops and do without pesticides. This is a dilemma. For the individual farm, high yield is important. For the national economy, overproduction is as harmful as scarcity. We can hardly speak of scarcity in the EU.

In Europe alone, we feed seven billion animals every year, which is 3.5 times more meat weight than all EU citizens weigh. We can’t sustain this waste anyway, because it creates huge problems ranging from nitrate contamination of groundwater, air pollution, climate-relevant emissions, already epidemic diseases caused by malnutrition to the spread of antibiotic-resistant germs.

It is pure utopia to think that we can continue to produce and eat as before and solve all environmental problems at the same time – phasing out pesticides seems less utopian to me.

Investigate Europe’s new investigative series, Slient Death: Europe’s deep-rooted pesticide problem and a biodiversity crisis.

The EU Commission now wants to legally oblige member states to reduce pesticide use by half by 2030. That’s a good measure, isn’t it?

This is good news for now, but only provided that the EU Commission also introduces indicators and the associated measures with which this can be measured and practically implemented. At the moment I see little chance of success. A blanket reduction of the sales volume is not very effective. That would be better.

The best thing would be to do away with pesticides in maize and cereals as soon as possible, because that is where agronomic measures to replace them are easiest. If we proceeded in this way, the goal would already be achieved. We would then have about 60 per cent pesticide-free agricultural land in the EU. This is much more sensible than simply reducing the amount, which would still mean that pesticides would be applied everywhere, only in smaller but possibly more effective quantities. This does nothing for the protection of species and human health. I propose a gradual phase-out. In difficult cases like potatoes, grapes and fruit, it will take longer. In some cases, new varieties have to be bred and new trees and vines planted, and much more.

The Foodwatch report also says: “The EU pesticide policy is not coherent and not aligned with overarching political objectives.” Is this not exaggerated?

No, that is still rather softly formulated. The Farm to Fork strategy does indeed name sustainability and healthy nutrition as a goal. But so far the individual problems are being tackled unsuccessfully with a nitrate directive here, a biodiversity strategy there, the pesticide regulation and other individual measures. In practice, nothing comes together and subsidies continue to promote the wrong system.

What do you think would be effective tools to reduce and end pesticide use?

On farms we need more diversity in all areas: small-scale cultivation (e.g. strip cropping), more habitat for beneficial insects, reduced fertilisation, the cultivation of robust varieties and fruit species. The state has the possibility to intervene legally and by means of subsidy policy. Integrated pest management is already obligatory and could theoretically be defined much more strictly, including the prohibition of certain crop rotations. This would prevent plant protection problems from building up due to the wrong sequence of crop types. There are already rules to this effect: for example, there must always be long breaks between the cultivation of potatoes, sugar beet and rape. However, other “bad” sequences are still allowed.

A tax on pesticide sales, graded according to toxicity and efficacy, would also be very useful. In Denmark, the pesticide tax has proven to be the most effective instrument. In addition, the state could withdraw all authorisations for applications that promote violations of integrated pest management and where preventive, non-chemical measures ensure sufficient plant protection. The specific authorisation would have to consider benefits, harms and alternatives in each case.

If this programme were to happen, the farmers’ unions would start a revolt.

That is likely, and rightly so. We need to transform agricultural production, but we can’t just push that off to the farm level. This will only work if agricultural subsidies are also fundamentally transformed. Up to now, payment has mainly been based on hectares. Whoever has more land gets more subsidies, regardless of labour costs. Originally, subsidies were supposed to secure farm incomes – now land ownership is rewarded. A conceivable solution would be a kind of basic agricultural income instead of land subsidies.