Member States slam European Commission pesticide reduction ambitions

Credit: Johny Goerend / Unsplash

“We cannot have long-term food security without food sustainability,” warned the EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety. But despite the rallying cry from Stella Kyriakides, who is responsible for the proposal to cut pesticides use in Europe in half by 2030, Member States slammed the ambitious approach at a Council of Agriculture (Agrifish) meeting on Monday.

A dozen Member States, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe and Southern Europe, expressed strong opposition to the draft plans unveiled in late June. They included Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia, as well as Spain, Portugal, Malta and Luxembourg. With such opposition, it would not take much for a “blocking minority” to form within the Council, threatening the overall ambition of the legislative text.

The arguments were reminiscent of those put forward by agribusiness lobbies: pesticide reduction measures threaten the European Union’s food security, restrictions are impossible without alternative products on the market and the view that food shortages could rise in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Europe would find itself dependent on agricultural imports, further weakening its sovereignty, they said. The proposal, many claimed, does not adequately cater for national differences, even if the European Commission has proposed derogations from the reduction targets for nations with lower pesticide use than the European average.

In addition, an overwhelming majority of Member States strongly criticized the ban on pesticides in so-called “sensitive” areas, such as Natura 2000 protected areas. Slovenia pointed out that a significant part of their arable land is located in these sensitive areas. Spain, meanwhile, argued that such an approach would create pest reservoirs that would be difficult to manage.

Others, Ireland among them, warned of the administrative burden that could be generated by the regulation. A lack of scientific data and harmonized statistics at the European level allowing for comparisons between Member States was also noted as a key missing element that could inform the scope of the proposal. Many were also critical of the use of funds provided for in the Common Agricultural Policy to support farmers in the transition to lower use of plant protection products.

Pesticides are widespread across the EU. Some groups have argued that farmers’ ability to transition away from them is near impossible as they are increasingly dependent on fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides. 

The regulatory plans have been fought over for years by various parties and with EU sales worth almost €12 billion a year, changing long-held practices is proving a difficult task. Investigate Europe’s latest investigation detailed the extent of the problem and the growing biodiversity crisis that is unfolding across the continent.

At the council meeting, Commissioner Kyriakides stressed again the need for regulation and told objecting Member States that “continuing with business as usual is not an option”.

She added: “When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we faced many calls to abandon the Green Deal, to abandon the Farm to Fork strategy and to postpone our targets. And now we are hearing the same thing following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

The issue is a highly inflammatory subject in EU circles and opposition to the regulation has grown in recent months. According to internal documents obtained by Investigate Europe on the closed-door discussions in the Council’s working group held on 13 July, nearly 20 Member States strongly opposed the European Commission’s proposal.

Choppy political waters likely lie ahead. The Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU has repeatedly indicated that it does not want to seek a political agreement during its 2022 term and will be satisfied with delivering a progress report by the end of the year. An agreement in the Council is not expected until the first half of 2023 at the earliest.

In the European Parliament, Green MEP Sarah Wiener is responsible for the thorny legislative text. Her appointment suggests that the parliament will take a more ambitious position, although it is certain that the Austrian MEP will have to battle with conservative forces, and some social democrats in the months ahead.

One thing is sure, though: the more the positions of the two institutions diverge, the more difficult the ensuing negotiations will be and the longer it will take for a binding EU regulation on pesticides to finally be agreed. And meanwhile, biodiversity in Europe continues to collapse.

Authors: Pascal Hansens and Harald Schumann
Editor: Chris Matthews