In Brussels, the multi-billion euro pesticide business is everywhere

The postponement came at the height of a public relations campaign by the major chemical producers. They have a strong lobbying machine, supported by the powerful European federation of farmers’ associations, Copa-Cogeca.

The matter is serious and sensitive. This was clear when Investigate Europe interviewed EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who is responsible for herding Europe through a green transformation. The Green Deal master plan has its own strategy for the greening of agriculture, called Farm to Fork. The SUR regulation is the first attempt to translate that strategy into law. “Of course the agro-industrial complex mobilizes, and we have a very, very confrontational debate, as I always seem to have with them,” Timmermans said.

The pesticide lobby in Brussels is not frugal with its spending. According to EU data, Bayer is the pesticide producer with the highest budget, more than €4.25 million per year. Only Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have higher annual lobbying expenditures.

Big lobby budgets

Bayer, BASF, Corteva and Syngenta are the world’s largest pesticide firms. Although competitors, the companies collaborate to intensify their lobby efforts. They drive and finance the activity of lobby group Crop Life. This organization funded an academic study by Wageningen University, published in 2022, which concluded that pesticide reduction policies in Europe “will result in a decrease in the volumes produced per crop across the EU by an average of 10 to 20 per cent”.

The competing companies are lobbying in Brussels in a united way, according to Nina Holland, a researcher with Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO that has published several reports on the pesticide industry and lobbying. “They are all lobbying for the same pro-business rules for risk assessment or postponing certain measures. If you look at these organizations, you can see that Bayer, BASF, Corteva and Syngenta tend to dominate their leadership.”

Copa-Cogeca also lobbies against the SUR. Its general secretary, Pekka Pesonen, told Investigate Europe that his organization “supports the principles” of pesticide reduction. But in September 2021, he shared with his members a PR campaign mounted to spread uncertainty among EU parliamentarians about effects of the new legislation. Copa-Cogeca’s internal strategy identified several studies carried out by agronomists defending positions close to those of the industry, as well as a critical analysis by the US Department of Agriculture.

Sowing uncertainty

The farmers’ association has met European Commissioners or their staff 26 times since 2019 to discuss the issues. Crop Life Europe has had 12 meetings. Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and Corteva had 69 meetings, an average of two per month. No records are kept by the EU of meetings with lower level officials.

“We feel that mandatory targets, as such, are not realistic, they are targets that are going to be very hard to achieve. And they could have unintended, negative consequences,” Anika Gatt Seretny, spokesperson for Croplife Europe, told Investigate Europe in an interview.

Investigate Europe requested interviews with the four pesticide giants; Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and Corteva. The latter two did not respond to our requests. BASF and Bayer declined interviews. Bayer instead sent a general statement, while BASF responded to written questions.

BASF acknowledges society’s desire to reduce reliance on pesticides, and understands why the EU Commission wants a 50 per cent reduction in use and risk of pesticides by 2030, assures Holger Kapp in the company’s Corporate media relations.

“The key question is how this will be done. These ambitious targets alone will not reduce the need for crop protection by 50 per cent, so something will need to be done instead. We see no point in questioning the Green Deal or Farm to Fork strategy, but we do see the need to find ways that make agriculture more sustainable and climate friendly while food supply in Europe and other parts of the world remains secured.”

At the national level, where governments will have the final say on pesticide law in the EU Council, the interests of farmers’ associations and the pesticide industry are also notorious. In France, the agriculture minister of the first Macron government was so close to the national farmers’ federation, that the head of that federation publicly praised him on Twitter as a “good spokesperson for the cause”. The agriculture minister’s former chief of staff, Marc Fresneau, recently joined the national lobby of pesticide manufacturers as head of public relations.

A global market

The business is big, too. In 2019, the pesticide market was valued at €52 billion, of which European sales accounted for €12 billion. The four major companies dominate two-thirds of the total market. The largest of these is Bayer, whose global “crop protection” business recorded revenues of more than €20 billion last year. Then comes Syngenta, based in Switzerland but bought by state-owned ChemChina, and Corteva, founded by DuPont and Dow in the US, and another German chemical giant, BASF.

Bayer, BASF and Corteva are partly owned by the same five US investment funds – Blackrock, Vanguard, State Street, Capital Group and Fidelity. These also hold between 10 per cent and 30 per cent stakes in major global food companies such as Unilever, Nestlé, Mondelez, Kellogg, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

However, the combined turnover of the top four pesticides producers fell from $46 billion in 2014 to $40 billion in 2020. This was mainly due to the rise in sales from China of generic and out-of-date patented chemicals, according to market research.

Pushing for GMOs

Major players have responded to the loss of market share partly by focusing on trading seeds that are genetically modified to be immune to the pesticides.

Even if a chemical pesticide is banned in the EU, it can be produced and exported. So the poisons banned in the EU, and the seeds treated with them, can be sold to countries where they are still allowed. These may be countries which also export agricultural products to the EU. And this is a complaint from nearly every farmer Investigate Europe met with: the EU should apply the same European rules to agricultural products imported from Brazil, Chile, Morocco or elsewhere.

Dependent and with little income

No wonder agricultural change is so much battled over in Brussels: The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the largest share of the EU budget, accounting for 31 per cent of the total budget in 2022, or €53.1 billion. But all major EU member states have seen a significant decline in average gross agricultural income without subsidies, ranging from -6 per cent in Germany to -33 per cent in Belgium. The only exception is Spain, where gross income per hectare increased slightly by 3 per cent.

The Farm to Fork strategy wants to have all countries increase organic farming, to a quarter of farmed land, by 2030. Today, farming without chemical pesticides occupies only a very small portion of the land that produces our food. It accounts for 8.5 per cent on average in the EU. Only in Austria does it approach a quarter (24 per cent) of total agricultural production.

Unease over the Ukraine war

In the coming months, the first legal proposal of that plan – the pesticide reduction target – is going to be fought over.

The lobby that criticizes F2F points in particular to risks that a restrictive policy carries for the security of food supply in Europe. Critics of the pesticide law talk of a possible food crisis, mainly with the argument that the Russian invasion of Ukraine created a problem of grain supply.

This argument has made its way into various offices of European parliamentarians and Brussels officials, despite the fact that the EU is a net exporter of food. According to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, no EU state is among the 50 countries most dependent on Russian and Ukrainian imports.

Vested interests are scaring farmers into believing that Farm to Fork policies will cost them their livelihoods, Green Deal commissioner Frans Timmermans claims. “Whereas I am  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,” he predicts.

While the pesticide lobby continues to extend its reach into all corners of Europe’s agricultural sector and political life, many ordinary farmers are left feeling trapped. Dependent on pesticides to maintain production levels, often for increasingly poor yields, they are in a tight squeeze, hoping for solutions. They await news from Brussels.