Silent Death – Europe’s deep-rooted pesticide problem and a biodiversity crisis

Credit: Alexia Barakou

“We are in a biodiversity crisis. Species are going extinct faster than they have for 65 million years, since the meteor wiped out the dinosaurs. And it is accelerating,” warns Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex in England. Insects are his main specialty. Not only do they make up two-thirds of all known species, but they are the ones that enable other living organisms, not least by pollination. 

Industrial-scale agriculture and monoculture crops are feeding the world, but at huge cost to the environment. A toxic mix of pesticides and fertilizers continue to be sprayed over vast areas, while swathes of natural land are razed for crops, causing widespread erosion of ecosystems and biodiversity. Chemicals and agribusiness are not the only culprits. Climate change is another key driver, according to scientists. Together, they form a looming disaster.

The science analysed by IE during our months-long research is crystal clear in showing how pesticides harm wildlife, plants and humans – they may cause cancers, mutations and reproductive difficulties. But Europe is yet to wake up to its deep-rooted pesticide problem. Today, over 400 different active pesticide substances are approved in the EU. Global pesticide sales have doubled in the last 20 years, to about €52 billion in 2019. The European market for agricultural pesticides is one of the largest in the world, with sales of around €12 billion in 2019.

The EU is also the global leader in pesticide exports. Since 2018, only China has exported more pesticides than Germany. Then comes France, the US, Belgium, Spain and the UK as the largest country distributors.

While many remain silent on the biodiversity crisis amid this booming trade, ordinary citizens have realized things must change. More than one million Europeans signed the “Save the bees and the farmers!” initiative, which called for a phase-out of chemical pesticides by 2035. Many local communities in Europe, several visited by IE, are trying to transform the way agriculture is done in their regions. And farmers interviewed by IE reporters, from Greece to Norway and from Portugal to Poland, say they would like to reduce their use of pesticides – if only alternatives were affordable.

The EU Commission is finally addressing the biodiversity breakdown at its doorstep. Two years ago, the Farm to Fork policy, the flagship EU strategy to make European agriculture green and sustainable, set a target to reduce pesticide use by 50 per cent by 2030. The Sustainable use of pesticides regulation (SUR), currently being wrangled over in Brussels, is central to this goal and will be the first binding EU law to tackle the problem. Whether the regulation succeeds on the ground remains to be seen.

The strategy, though, is up against a counter-alliance of chemical companies and agribusiness lobby groups, Investigate Europe research and disclosures by NGOs and other media shows. Together with conservative politicians and other vested interests, they are pushing to defend the status quo. The Ukraine war has handed opponents to regulation another argument: not to reduce pesticide use and risk lower agricultural yields at a time when global food security is at stake.

Others insist that the time to act on pesticides and biodiversity is now. Entomologist Josef Settele predicts that by continuing with the current agricultural system, we are ultimately “putting the food security of the entire human race at risk.”

You can read here our publications with media partners all over Europe and on our website, including field reporting and analysis of scientific studies and data, expert interviews, and portraits of farmers from across the continent. We will also try to show examples of constructive solutions to the issue.