Nina Holland, Corporate Europe Observatory: “The chemical and pesticide industry have a long history of manufacturing doubt”

Credit: Beeld rv

Here, Nina Holland, a researcher with NGO Corporate Europe Observatory, tells IE about the long arm of the EU pesticide lobby and how they attempt to stifle debate and influence decision-making.

The four major pesticide producers are competing on the market, but they seem united when it comes to lobbying. Why?

You could see this from the formation of lobby groups in Europe where the big multinationals, even across sectors, united on topics like climate or chemicals. This had a huge impact, and has grown over the years into a system where each sector has a lobby association. You have the umbrella association, Business Europe, then underneath a group like CEFIC [The European Chemical Industry Council], and then Plastics Europe, CropLife Europe and others. This structure allows them to all work together – pesticides, chemicals, plastics – because they all benefit from the same business-friendly rules when it comes to risk assessments or delaying environmental or health measures.

And if you look within those associations, you can see that Bayer, BASF, Corteva and Syngenta usually dominate the leaderships. What’s more, Bayer and BASF commonly pay for the costs of CEFIC, for example – it’s another example of how they are coordinated and often pool their resources together for impact.

To put the lobbying expenses in perspective, Bayer, for example, spent between €6 million and €7 million last year. Where does this rank among lobby expenses?

The €7 million Bayer says it spends on lobbying includes the money they pay to CEFIC, and CEFIC spent around €10 million on lobbying, according to their own figures. But CEFIC’s overall budget is €42 million. So already that makes you wonder: is Bayer’s lobbying budget not much higher than what they say? All that €42 million if Bayer only pays, say half of their lobby costs, €3.5 million, then where does all that other money for CEFIC come from? It does not seem to add up. CEFIC says it has €10 million for lobbying and €42 million is its overall budget, if this is the case, then what is all that other money spent on? They are there to lobby. They exist to represent the industry, to organize events, to conduct research and provide legal advice. The €42 million figure gives a much more realistic idea of their resources the chemicals and pesticide lobby have, and even this is not all. It does not include the budgets of the national chemical lobby associations, for instance, that also lobby at the EU level.

Sometimes I go to the National Bank of Belgium and some of the lobby groups are registered there. And you can then see, for instance, how much they spent on salaries. It also gives you an indication of how much they actually spend. So, if they have 50 employees and they spend an average of €100,000 on an employee, then you get a more realistic figure of their resources than what they claim they spent on lobbying in the EU Transparency Register.

The companies that spend the most on lobbying globally are Google, Facebook, Microsoft and then Bayer is fourth. And then you have Shell, Apple, BP, Exxon and then BASF. These are all in-house lobby companies, that all lobby with their own budgets, and on top of this you have the industry lobby associations.

Do you think the pesticide lobby is using the Ukraine war as an excuse to try to derail the new pesticides regulation?

NH: Yes, absolutely. What they want is for the new pesticide reduction regulation to be delayed again, and if not, for it to be introduced in a way that has the lowest possible impact on their operations. Industry and the Conservatives have been using the Ukraine war to scaremonger both the Commission and member states on a large number of topics.

Some countries have already done more on pesticide reduction than others, so they feel it’s unfair. Countries that use a lot of pesticides, also don’t want a high reduction target for different reasons. All these factors may make the negotiations difficult, and the council internally will have a hard time.

In your recent report, you listed precision farming under the lobbying tactics. But some scientists and ecologists believe precision farming could be the future. Is precision farming just a lobbying tactic, or can it be an alternative to pesticides?

Precision farming is a broad term that is used by many different people. Each time you have a new term and different people are using it, be it academics, industry or others, they don’t necessarily mean the same. There are researchers working on ways to reduce pesticides to make agriculture more “climate smart” or “precise” by using more crop rotation, a larger variety of crops, or smaller and lighter machines.

Industry however, when talking about precision farming, aim for new markets for digital tools and new biotech seeds. They promote the use of drones, for instance, to see where the pest is advancing or where it starts, and then to apply pesticides only locally. This can lead to a system whereby the farmer completely loses control over their data and operations. They also claim you absolutely need new biotech seeds that they claim are the result of “precision breeding”.  They tell the Commission: “You have to deregulate these new GMO crops”. They are not only fighting the pesticide reduction, but they also use that pressure to try and create a new market for biotech seeds through further deregulation. As they already dominate the seed market, it will become very attractive to always use gene edited crops because they are patented. Consequently, the whole seed sector will be more inclined to market a genetically modified variety than a conventionally bred variety. That could become a new driving mode for their business. This is what the industry calls precision farming.

Corporate Europe Observatory has also shown how industry groups carry out ‘lobbying through science’. Can you shed some more light on how they do this?

The chemical and pesticide industry have a long history of manufacturing doubt about the harmfulness of their products. They do this by paying for studies themselves that point to other causes of harm, attacking scientists that do find evidence of harm, or having industry-friendly scientists that will do the talking for them.

This very problematic lobbying tactic has been well-documented for cases like tobacco, asbestos, lead, the hole in the ozone layer or climate change. A more recent example is when industry attacked an independent report on hormone disrupting chemicals. Finally, a group of industry-linked scientists even helped to delay and derail EU action on this very harmful group of chemicals.  

And recently, Pesticide Action Network published a report on how there are now many more residues found on European fruits and vegetables coming from substances called ’candidates for substitution’. These are substances that authorities have said should have been phased out long ago, but they are still on the market, and the research found they are now much more widespread than 10 years ago.

This was picked up by media everywhere in Europe. In one country, lots of media asked a specific professor about the findings. He told them that all the residues were still below the threshold, and that there is no acute human health hazard, so really nothing to worry about. In another country, professors agreed that there is may be no acute danger for the general public. But it is dangerous for the farmers that use these substances, for people in the local surroundings – and for the environment, they said.

Interestingly, the professor in the former country organizes an annual university conference supported by big pesticide companies. The reach of this industry is significant, and their collaboration with certain universities is very close.