EU wants to cut pesticide use – but will it give itself the tools to measure it?

Credit: Alexia Barakou

After intense debate for over a year, negotiators from the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (EU governments) struck a deal on the regulation on agricultural inputs and outputs (SAIO), on 2 June.

The EU law seeks to strike a balance between streamlining agriculture data collection – including the type and volume of pesticides used by farmers – while avoiding placing too heavy a burden on the industry and national authorities.

Today, there is no credible EU-wide statistics on pesticide use, only on pesticide sales. In 2020, there were 346,000 tonnes of pesticides sold in the EU – a volume that has been more or less stable over the last decade, slightly decreasing in the last years.

But this sales data is not enough to measure and monitor the 50 per cent reduction in pesticides use by 2030, an ambition agreed upon in principle by EU governments in the Farm to Fork strategy. This week, the European Commission proposed binding targets in the Sustainable use of pesticides regulation (SUR).

The EU regulation on agriculture statistics is seen as a crucial tool to achieve this reduction in pesticides use. Unsurprisingly, the plans have been hotly debated by environmental activists, lobbyists, farmers and governments.

“This is a keystone file for anything going forward – you can talk all you want about reducing pesticides, fertilisers, about organic, but if there’s no data, nothing moves,” says Petros Kokkalis, a Greek MEP from the Left Group, who spearheaded the statistics law in the European Parliament.

A crucial aspect is how often, and starting from when, the data should be collected.

In its proposal last year, the Commission said data should be collected annually from 2025. But the Council mandate proposed that member states only collect the data every five years. It also scrapped the obligation on farmers to keep and send the data electronically.

The governments which pushed through those changes in the Council were those from Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia and Spain. This was revealed by NGOs Pesticide Action Network (PAN) and Friends of the Earth by analysing the EU governments’ statements in the Council negotiations.

PAN said the governments “watered down the SAIO proposal in a way that makes the 50 per cent pesticide reduction target impossible to measure and therefore pointless.” The final deal struck between the three EU lawmakers is closer to the position of the European Parliament when it comes to the annual data collection and standardized, electronic data.

However, the annual data collection will only start in 2028, two years before EU farmers already should have cut their pesticide use by 50 per cent.

Once in place, the EU statistics regulation will fill a gap between two existing EU laws. Farmers are currently required to keep records (pesticide name, date, dose, area and crop) for at least three years, but only file with national authorities when requested. The data can be provided in any format: an excel sheet, a notebook or just a piece of loose paper. Records are often only collected sporadically from a sample of farms in order for authorities to estimate pesticides use.

When national authorities do collect the data, they are obliged by another existing EU law, to share it with Eurostat, the EU statistics agency.

EU-wide statistics are patchy, as member states choose which crops and which years to look at. “Without further harmonization, Eurostat has not found any possibility to disseminate any meaningful data,” reads a 2019 research paper from the statistic agency.

Under the June deal, pesticides data should be harvested by national authorities annually, digitally and in a standardized format, as well as shared at EU level.

“Data exist, but they are not homogenous, they are not the same in every country, and they are not published. Our effort is to make all European countries collect data in the same way and at the same time,” says MEP Petros Kokkalis.

The main argument against the new statistics rules is a potential increase in costs for farmers.

“It is important to collect the same data only once, to avoid excessive administrative burden. Most farmers are micro enterprises, not even SMEs, so this could be a considerable part of their time,” says Pekka Pesonen, general secretary of EU farmers’ lobby Copa-Cogeca.

Some farmers are also wary of the confidentiality of the data at farm level, fearing bullying in their local communities, says Pesonen.

Others worry that the requirements and the soon-to-come mandatory pesticides reduction targets will reduce their competitiveness compared to farmers outside the EU.

Tomato producer Ildefonso Cabanillas Corchado in Extremadura, the Spanish region bordering Portugal, already keeps a mandatory “crop book”, which identifies all chemicals he uses. This, just like other “traceability rules”, is unfair on EU farmers, he says.

“Where is the traceability of watermelons coming from Morocco? As fair and controlled as the one that we have? It turns out that the ones from Morocco are five cents cheaper than the ones I bring from Seville.”

The EU compromise on the statistics regulation is scheduled for formal approval in the European Parliament in November. There is no date set yet for the approval in the Council. When both institutions formally approved it, it becomes law.