The battle over pesticides in Europe

Credit: Alexia Barakou

Apples, apples everywhere. In the Vinschgau region of South Tyrol, Italy, one apple orchard follows the next in a valley framed by the snow-covered peaks, unique in Europe on this scale. The Tyrolean fruit growers export hundreds of millions of these fruits each year, with the trade worth between €500 million and €600 million annually.

Also unique is the political controversy that accompanies it. The industrial production of immaculate apples for supermarket shelves requires the use of pesticides on a grand scale. Tractors with poison sprayers are omnipresent. To watch them makes Günther Wallnöfer nervous, he says, while walking his cows from the meadow to the barn, past an apple orchard covered by a black net. “This is supposed to protect the apples but also to prevent the drift of pesticides,” explains Wallnöfer, who makes his living from organic dairy farming and vegetable cultivation in the municipality of Mals.

Despite the nets, he always fears bad results from testing samples of the animal feed grown next to apple plantations. Although the drift can be reduced with spraying techniques, nets and hedges, the substances still end up where they don’t belong: on the meadows, in the water, the children’s playgrounds, even atop the surrounding mountains, as different studies have found. 

And so, the citizens of Mals decided to fight back. In a 2014 referendum, three quarters of the district voted to radically limit the use of pesticides. A heated debate and legal dispute followed. Although the area’s organic production of 14 per cent is relatively high for Europe, a majority of plantations still rely on toxic substances. Dozens of farmers appealed the decision. The local court agreed and suspended the ban. Now, the fate of the orchards in South Tyrol rests with the highest administrative court in Rome – and also with Brussels.

There, the institutions and politicians of the EU are fighting the same struggle as the people and farmers in South Tyrol. This week, the EU Commission presented a law proposing to halve the use of pesticides by 2030, a legally binding target across all EU member states. “This is a step in the right direction,” says Martina Hellrigl, a representative of the local citizens’ initiative, in her garden in Mals. “We can’t continue with this way of doing agriculture in this system of enormous monocultures. We are looking for alternatives.”

Credit: Alicia Prager
Martina Hellrigl in South Tyrol: “We can’t continue with this way of doing agriculture.” Credit: Lorenzo Buzzoni.

Agriculture vs environment

It is a task that people all over Europe are facing, where the industrialization of agriculture is destroying its biological foundations. Monocultures and the associated use of chemicals, as well as close crop rotation doped with mineral fertilisers are abundant. Such practices are driving the over-exploitation of flora and fauna of agricultural landscapes and their soils. The current agricultural system “puts the food security of the entire human race at risk”, warns Josef Settele, an entomologist from Leipzig and one of the lead authors of the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity. The report assessed that the risks of biodiversity loss are on par with climate change as mankind’s most urgent concerns.

Those in power are well aware of the unfolding catastrophe. Industrial food production is “one of the main key drivers of climate change and environmental degradation”, the EU Commission stated when it adopted it’s ambitious Farm to Fork reform programme in 2020.

“It is urgently necessary to reduce dependence on pesticides and antimicrobial agents, to reduce the excessive use of fertilisers, to intensify organic farming, to improve animal welfare and to reverse the loss of biodiversity,” the Commission said. They announced that the use of pesticides and mineral fertilisers should be reduced by half and one-fifth respectively, by 2030.

The postponement game

But despite the clear announcement, no visible changes have transpired on the ground. As in the decades before with climate protection, those responsible are now shying away from the vital changes needed to protect soils and species. Who is behind it? What are the risks? Why is the greening of agriculture so difficult?

This is what Investigate Europe’s reporters spoke about with farmers, lobbyists, agroecologists, activists and politicians all over Europe, from Norway to Greece and from Portugal to Poland. Their answers speak of fear and hope at the same time. In the dispute over food security, an alliance of chemical companies and associations of large farmers, together with conservative politicians, are stubbornly defending the status quo. The lobbyists and the conservative agricultural politicians are “very cynically using even the Ukraine war and the impending food crisis as an argument” against the EU reforms, according to Nina Holland of the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory. But a growing citizens’ movement, supported by respected agronomists and biologists, is fighting back.

Disappearing insects

The controversy over the use of toxic chemicals against insect pests, fungi and weeds has been going on for decades. Biologist Rachel Carson started the debate in 1962 with an alarming report on the consequences of the highly toxic insecticide DDT, which was used worldwide at the time. She reported on “mysterious diseases” and on landscapes over which the “shadow of death” lies. She prefaced her investigation with a vision. The “future fairy tale” of the “silent spring”, where the flowers have wilted and the birds have disappeared, where the bees no longer buzz through the orchards and silence lies over the fields.

American conservationist Rachel Carson conducted groundbreaking research on pesticide risks in the 1960s. Creidt: Creative Commons.

“This tragedy,” she wrote in her book Silent Spring, the world’s first environmental bestseller, “is for now only a figment of the imagination.” But it could “easily become a harsh reality” if the “spectre” of agriculture, hyped up with agricultural poisons, is not stopped.

Sixty years later, her vision is coming ominously close.

A landmark 2019 study found more than 40 per cent of insect species were in decline, with industrial agriculture and pesticide use cited as major contributing factors.

Drivers can already see this in the far lower number of insects squashed on their number plates while driving today. British organisation Kent Wildlife Trust equipped hundreds of “citizen scientists” with measuring devices for their cars in the summer of 2021, and found the number of flying insects killed has dropped by almost two-thirds compared to a similar survey in 2004. The decline is happening in all habitats, whether urban, rural or forest. But especially in agricultural landscapes, where the number of species still living is decreasing, researchers from the University of Würzburg recently found. According to their study, 29 per cent fewer species and 56 per cent fewer endangered species live there than near-natural areas where forests and grasslands dominate.

Disappearing pollinators

Agricultural biologist Josef Settele has observed that this trend towards species loss in the countryside “shows that we have a homogenisation of the whole landscape”and that “pesticides play an important role in insect mortality”. 

Settele, 62, is a reserved man who weighs things carefully, but on this point, he is clear. “It’s very risky,” he warns, referring to the “impact of climate change on pollinators.”

“Around 75 per cent of cultivated plants depend on insect pollination,” he adds. “And so does our vitamin supply of fruits and nuts.” With increasing weather extremes, however, “it is to be expected that some insect species will no longer be able to keep up and will fail. Then other ones that are better off could take their place. A large spectrum of species is therefore a kind of natural insurance.” But this is now in danger of being lost and “we are forfeiting our adaptability for the future”.

Certainly, no one knows “whether there will still have to be 580 bee species in Germany in the future, as there have been in the past,” he says. “But the more species, the more adaptation options there are. No one can say exactly how many are needed. We will only know when it is too late.”

The future of pollinators such as bees is at risk from pesticide use. Credit: Creative Commons.

Disappearing birds

As insects dwindle, so do birds. “Almost all bird species use insects as food for their young,” explains Ariel Brunner, European head of charity Bird Life International. Its members have been collecting data from all over Europe for years and their findings are alarming. The assessed that populations of the 168 common European bird species have declined 18 per cent since 1980. But in the same period, the 39 species of field birds lost as much as 59 per cent of their former population.

“This shows indisputably that it is our farming systems that are killing them,” Brunner says. “Agricultural land is turning into ecological wasteland.” French conservation biologist Benoït Fontaine is equally sober in his assessment. “This is a huge decline, a disaster,” he told Investigate Europe. “We are heading faster and faster towards a wall, and we are accelerating.”

A lame EU directive

The charge sounds exaggerated, but the policies of EU governments prove the angry researcher right. For more than 10 years, they have failed to fulfill a legal obligation to reduce the amount of poison being sprayed on fields and plantations. As early as 2009 national governments, together with the EU Parliament, passed the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive. The directive obliges all EU states to create national action plans to reduce the impact of pesticide use. “This includes limiting pesticide use in sensitive areas and banning aerial spraying” as well as promoting “non-chemical alternatives to pesticides to reduce dependence on pesticide use.”

Significantly, though, the plans did not contain any verifiable targets and the EU Commission repeatedly called for improvements. But nothing happened. After the EU Court of Auditors denounced the failure in 2019, the new EU Commission made their feelings clear. In a report on the directive’s implementation, the office of Commission Vice-President and climate chief Frans Timmermans delivered a damning verdict. “Most member states have not addressed the weaknesses identified in their plans, so most lack ambition to define result-oriented targets to reduce risks and dependence [on pesticides].”

Only France and Luxembourg had announced that they would reduce the use of poisons by half by 2030. In France, however, this was only on paper. Instead, French farmers’ pesticide purchases actually increased between 2011 and 2020 from 61,200 to 67,700 tonnes.

The public demands action

The inaction, however, provoked protests similar to the one seen in South Tyrol. Over the years, this has developed into a well-organised EU-wide movement, to which numerous scientists also belong.

Its strength was first demonstrated in 2017, when it managed to collect more than one million signatures for a “European Citizens’ Initiative” within seven months. “We call on the European Commission to propose a ban on glyphosate to the member states, to reform the authorisation procedure for pesticides and to set binding EU-wide targets for the reduction of pesticide use,” the signatories demanded, forcing a statutory hearing in the EU Parliament.

Citing the citizens demands, Timmermans and his colleagues announced the reform of EU law to “reduce the use and risk of chemical pesticides by 50 per cent by 2030 and the use of higher risk pesticides by 50 per cent by 2030.” This time it would be a direct legally binding commitment via EU regulation. 

Agriculture ministries flock to support farmers

Before even a first draft bill had been written, EU agriculture ministers organised resistance in committee meetings of their officials in the EU Council. At the time, the German Council Presidency was chaired by the conservative Julia Klöckner, who promptly delivered. To do so, she had her officials write “Conclusions of the Council of the EU” on the Commission’s report, which made no mention of their own failures and instead claimed “the Commission’s findings do not provide a complete overview”. Moreover, they warned against “creating a disproportionate economic burden on farmers” by reforming the law.

The event documents how national governments almost everywhere in the EU act as an extension of their farmers’ unions. In France, the first Macron government’s agriculture minister Julien Denormandie was so close to the national farmers’ federation, FNSEA, that its head described him on Twitter as a “good spokesperson for our cause”. At the same time, officials and civil servants are also closely linked to the chemical and fertilizer manufacturers. The German Farmers’ Association, for example, maintains the “Forum Moderne Landwirtschaft” and the “Verbindungsstelle Landwirtschaft-Industrie”.

BASF and Bayer, as well as their lobbying associations and the manufacturers of mineral fertilisers, are also members. Their managers, of course, also have a seat on the supervisory board.

Credit: Creative Commons
The Sustainable use of pesticides regulation is the first law to address pesticide use in Europe. Credit: Creative Commons.

Farmers are locked in

For the farmers’ officials, the protection of species and water usually comes second in this agro-chemical alliance, regardless of whether this also corresponds to the interests of the farmers. In France, the former head of the office of the current Minister of Agriculture, Marc Fresneau, was recently hired as the head of PR for the national lobby of pesticide manufacturers.

This is also happening so smoothly because the majority of Europe’s farmers are economically dependent on the use of agricultural poisons and therefore do not dare to rebel against them. Squeezed between the price dictates of the trading companies and the EU agricultural subsidies designed for mass production, they have to trim their fields for yield, even if this is only possible with poisons.

But it also keeps the farmers tied to the chemical industry and their toxic substances which goes along with high risks for the farmers, ecologically and economically, concludes a soon to be published study by the NGO Foodwatch, seen by Investigate Europe. “[The] use of pesticides is the least effective way to control pests, weeds and diseases, because without preventive measures pests are re-emerging with increasing frequency,” the authors state. Sooner or later the natural evolution lets all targeted organisms develop resistances against the poisons. For instance, the extensive use of herbicides has created resistant black grass, a very common weed in Northern Europe. In the UK, this results in additional annual costs of £400 million for farmers. Now, the resistant varieties have started to spread in Germany.

Yet many are well aware of the harmful consequences. Dieter Helm, 81, has worked in agriculture all his life and today manages 750 hectares of farmland in the Prignitz region northwest of Berlin with his two sons. When he talks about his fields, ecological stability is a major concern. “The soil is a living organism,” he explains. “You have to look after it, this is what we live on.” That’s why his employees must avoid ploughing in order to protect the soil organisms and in turn the carbon content. This also applies to the diversity in the landscape. His son Holger proudly shows off the specially planted “flower strips” and hedges at the edges of the extensive grain fields. There are now bees, butterflies, hoverflies on their land and field birds such as skylarks and goldfinches have returned.

Dieter Helm, 81, has worked in agriculture for 65 years. He says his family farm is working to reduce its reliance on pesticides. Credit: Harald Schumann.

Reducing poisons, as much as they dare

But in the fight against weeds, fungal infestations and insect damage, the Helms also use chemicals. Before sowing, they always apply glyphosate, a plant poison that is controversial because of its cancer risk. This kills everything with green leaves, including the dreaded couch grass. Later they spray stalk shorteners so that the richly fertilised, fast-growing grain does not fail. Soon after come the fungicides against “rust”, which the sensitive high-yielding varieties can do little to counter. And when the rape seed beetle invades, the tractors drive through the fields once again with pesticides.

“Yes, these are highly toxic substances,” says Holger Helm. “Which is why we are trying to reduce them.” With better machines and less active ingredients in the solutions, they have managed to reduce their spend on plant protection products from €161 to €113 per hectare since 2010. “We are about a quarter below the average in our region,” he estimates. But is it possible to reduce by 50 per cent, as the Commission proposes? “That is wishful thinking,” he says. “At least not if we have to produce the same yields.”

Holger Helm at the farm in the Prignitz region, northwest of Berlin. Credit: Harald Schumann.

Environmental goals “easily achieved”

The yield question is “the crucial point” in the debate, says British agronomist Nick Lampkin. “Haven’t we had enough for a long time?” he asks, pointing out that in Europe “unbelievable amounts of food are simply thrown away.” According to the EU Commission, one-fifth of the total food production goes to waste. Added to this, he says, is over-nutrition. Obesity has reached “epidemic proportions” in Europe, causing 1.2 million deaths a year, the World Health Organisation recently warned.

Lampkin, who has been researching the agricultural economy for 40 years and currently works for the renowned Thünen Institute in Germany, adds: “If we reduce waste and over consumption, we can easily achieve the goals of the F2F programme.”

He believes the targets are rather cautious anyway. For example, the planned expansion of organic farming to 25 per cent of arable land by 2030, which would mean tripling current levels. Lampkin considers this realistic if there is more demand for quality instead of quantity. “This alone would reduce the use of mineral fertiliser by a fifth, as envisaged by the F2F programme, and the use of pesticides would drop by a quarter,” he calculates.  In addition, “it has been proven that conventional farms can also save considerable amounts of pesticides” if they choose longer crop rotations and use green plants for fertilisation.

Less pesticides can be profitable

This is in line with the experiences of innovative farmers detailed by the NGO Pesticide Action Network (PAN) under the heading “low impact farming”. One of them is Jean-Philippe Petillon, a farmer who grows beets, cereals and rape on 100 hectares in Richeville, north of Paris. He has succeeded in establishing beetles on the green strips between the fields, which eat the slugs against which he used to have to spread poison.

In addition, he has drastically reduced the use of herbicides with the “false seed bed” method. He first allows the weeds to germinate in the seed furrows and then pulls them out with a cultivator before the actual grain sowing, without damaging the soil. And he practices crop rotation with eight different crops. “We now use about 50 per cent less pesticides than neighbouring farms, and that increases profits.” he says. “My accountant even asked me if I had lost the bills!”

His experience chimes with the results of a comprehensive study from a team of French researchers led by the agronomist Martin Lechenet. Across 946 non-organic commercial farms covering a wide range of production situations, they measured the contrasting levels of pesticide use. Their findings “failed to detect any conflict between low pesticide use and both high productivity and high profitability in 77 per cent of the farms.” 

Lobby sows uncertainty

Europe’s agricultural lobbyists, however, ignore such innovations. The EU umbrella organisation Copa-Cocega, which represents farmers and cooperative groups, prefers to work hand in hand with the lobby organisation CropLife, which, in addition to BASF and Bayer, also includes the Swiss-based and now Chinese-owned Syngenta and the American chemical giant Corteva. Together, these four firms control two-thirds of the global pesticide market worth €52 billion annually, of which European sales accounted for €12 billion in 2019.

Alongside Copa-Cocega they operate an almost perfect lobbying machine, railing against the Commission’s Farm to Fork programme and the reduction of pesticide use plans. The organisation Corporate Europe Observatory documented their extensive actions by accessing hundreds of internal documents. “These tactics range from scaremongering with ‘impact studies’, mobilising third countries (notably the US) to put pressure on the EU, to distracting decision makers with voluntary commitments or other false solutions,” the authors write.

The agroindustrial complex, as EU Commissioner Timmermans calls it, and their political supporters even tried to block the reform of a corresponding regulation to improve the collection of farm data in order to make the planned reduction targets impossible to measure.

Yet the lobbyists, publicly at least, always affirm their support for “sustainability” and the Farm to Fork strategy. “We support the principles,” Pekka Pesonen, Secretary General of Copa-Cocega told IE. In reality, he and his colleagues are doing everything they can to prevent the reduction targets and delay related legislation.

This was evident in a member presentation by the association’s PR strategists in September 2021. To undermine regulatory efforts, they wanted to plant seeds of uncertainty among EU parliamentarians. A series of studies by pro-industry scientists were presented, and some even supported by the US Department of Agriculture, showing how the F2F strategy supposedly jeopardises “strategic EU interests in the areas of food security, competitiveness and farmers’ incomes.” They claimed the pending reforms breached “red lines” for the industry and so to delay progress they called for a “comprehensive impact assessment for the entire programme.”

Activists protest against the pesticide giant Syngenta at an agribusiness lobby event in Brussels, 2017. Credit: Creative Commons.

Macron’s green promise

However, attempts to position the parliament against reforms failed at first. Parliamentarians explicitly spoke out in favour of legally binding limits on the use of pesticides and mineral fertilisers, as well as the expansion of organic farming. In addition to the Greens and Social Democrats, the liberals of the “Renew” group,  a party dominated by supporters of Emmanuel Macron, also voted in favour. Macron himself had promised that France would work for an “accelerated phase-out of pesticides” at the EU level when his government took over the EU Council Presidency. At the start of the presidency in January, he announced “initiatives to accelerate the agro-ecological transition” and to “launch work on revising the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive to speed the reduction in the use of pesticides in the European Union.”

The ideal argument: War

However, six weeks later, the Russian army launched its attack on Ukraine – and provided the agrochemical lobby with the perfect PR weapon. With a concerted campaign across all EU countries, the lobbyists turned a majority in the EU Parliament and Council within a few weeks.

Christine Lambert, head of the French farmers’ association and at the same time president of Copa-Cocega, kicked off the campaign. Because Ukraine was threatening to lose 12 per cent of the world’s wheat harvest, she declared a state of emergency and called for more production. “First and foremost, the logic of declining growth sought by the European Farm to Fork strategy must be fundamentally challenged,” she said. “Russia wants to use food weapons, let’s arm ourselves with a food shield!”

Janusz Wojciechowski, the right-wing conservative agricultural EU Commissioner from Poland, was on the same page. “The situation has changed,” he said. “If food security is in danger, we have to rethink and correct the objectives of the Farm to Fork strategy.” As was the German Farmers’ Association in close unity with the Christian Union state agriculture ministers from Lower Saxony and Bavaria.

Go ahead, till protected land

The growing number of opposition voices soon made their mark. As early as 2 March, the EU agriculture ministers demanded that the Commission give farmers the opportunity to increase production by setting aside 10 per cent of their arable land in return for payment for nature conservation back under the plough.

This makes no sense at all, according to most experts. The land in question accounts for just six of the EU’s 100 million hectares of agricultural land. Agronomists Jonas Luckmann, Christine Chemnitz and Olesya Luckmann from Berlin’s Humboldt University calculated that the use of “ecological priority areas” would increase EU grain production by 4.4 per cent in the best case. On a global scale, production would increase by just 0.4 per cent. At the same time, Europeans feed two-thirds of their grain to livestock. Reducing meat consumption by a few per cent would do much more to lower grain prices for import-dependent regions in Africa and the Middle East.

Moreover, most of the respective soils are not very productive. “[Attempts to] grow more by spreading more nitrogen fertiliser and destroying what is still ecologically useful will only further deteriorate the production capacity of agricultural systems,” says agronomist Pierre-Marie Aubert from French think tank IDDRI. “And make it almost impossible to increase yields.” Aubert and more than 600 experts signed an appeal denouncing the dismantling of the F2F programme. Even when asked repeatedly by IE, Commissioner Wojciechowski was unable to provide a scientific basis for the demanded increase in production.

Macron’s U-turn

But that did not stop the agrochemical lobby from making significant inroads. Notably, thanks to one of the most powerful players changing sides overnight. Suddenly, in mid-March, at the start of his final push for re-election as president, Emmanuel Macron called for “an adjustment of the European Farm to Fork strategy, based on a pre-war world, which envisaged a 13 per cent drop in production.” There was “no way Europe could afford that”. He did not provide proof, but the damage was done. On the same day, senior EU officials confirmed to IE that Commission President Ursula von der Leyen removed the pesticide use reform plans from the agenda. The law proposal was to set to be unveiled days later but now, the release was delayed until June.

According to Green MEP Martin Häusling, the manoeuvre mainly served to boost Macron against his opponent Marine Le Pen. “According to my information, President von der Leyen has issued the slogan that Macron cannot use a green agricultural reform now and that is why we are postponing it,” he said. Their spokesperson would not confirm this. And two French MEPs, neither from Macron’s party, told IE that there was no such link. But it is still plausible. For Le Pen had adopted the slogans of the officials. “Protecting nature” had been given “priority over the need to feed people”, the right-wing populist touted. “The symbol of this madness is the Farm to Fork strategy, which deliberately organises the drastic reduction of our agricultural production.”

Whatever has happened, it seems obvious that the Commissioners have something to hide about their internal conflicts over the issue. When Investigate Europe requested to access documents about the views on the proposed pesticide law exchange of different EU departments of the authority, the Commission failed to do so. This is a violation of the EU’s transparency rules.

Frans Timmermans has accused the pesticide lobby of turning farmers against the new regulatory plans. Credit: Creative Commons

A determined Green Deal commissioner

The Commissioner’s claim that this was merely a postponement because the Ukraine crisis took precedence. And Frans Timmermans, the EU Commission Vice-President responsible for the climate-friendly transformation of the EU economy, is determined to push ahead with the F2F legislative package now more than ever. “Without pesticides reduction, we will have a food crisis in Europe”, he told IE in an interview. He distanced himself from the “very, very confrontational debate” driven by the “agro-industrial complex” and said: “Let us not use the war to go back to the agriculture of the past.”

On Wednesday, 22 June, after a three-month delay, Timmermans and the Health Commissioner Stella Kyrikiades finally presented a draft of the law planned since 2019. It is supposed to oblige EU states to reduce the amount of pesticides applied by half within seven years. During the press conference, Timmermans made his commitment very clear: “Using the war in Ukraine to water down proposals and scare Europeans into believing sustainability means less food is frankly quite irresponsible because the climate and biodiversity crises are staring us in the face.” 

Governments playing for time

When and even whether the draft become law remains to be seen. Already, 10 national agriculture ministers, led by their Polish colleague Henryk Kowalczyk, have expressed their opposition. If they succeed in mobilising three more governments against the reform plans, they could subsequently block the legislation with the so called blocking minority in the council of ministers. According to a source close to the negotiations, five more states – Italy, Cyprus, Portugal, Ireland and Finland – raised doubts at a recent meeting of EU agriculture ministers.  Meanwhile, it is still unknown whether the new French government will stick to Macron’s pre-election promises. Only Germany’s Green agriculture minister Cem Özedemir and his allies from Scandinavia and the BeNeLux countries stand firm.

In the EU Parliament, the majority are now standing in opposition to the plans. This is because the Liberals (now called Renew) followed Macron’s U-turn and voted in favour of another resolution in March, which – like the PR strategy of Copa-Cogeca and Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski – called for a “comprehensive impact assessment of the [Farm to Fork] programme for European food security.” Such a move would take two years, says Green MEP Häusling in disbelief. “That’s how they’re going to get this parliament not to decide this at all before the next election.”

Pesticide x-factor: The public

This may well happen, but a formidable citizens’ movement against pesticides is also mobilising. For the second time in four years, the alliance of more than 150 organisations has succeeded in collecting around 1.2 million signatures for another EU citizens’ initiative. Under the title “Save the bees and the farmers!”, the initiative calls for a complete phase-out of pesticides by 2035 and the restructuring of agricultural policy in favour of smaller farms and organic farming.

As soon as the validation of the signatures is finished, the EU Parliament will have to hear the activists and their experts again – and the majority of the EU Commission is on their side. “The problem can no longer be suppressed, no matter what the agricultural lobby wants,” says one of the Commission’s experts involved. “The law is coming, it’s just a question of when.”

Credit: Alicia Prager
Farmer Günther Wallnöfer in Mals, South Tyrol.

The citizens of Mals will not let up either. Although there are still conventional apple crops in the area, the cooperation with traditional apple farmers is already working much better, says organic farmer Günther Wallnöfer. Then he points to a few red-spotted burnet moths, small butterflies that sit on the flowers. “Four or five years ago, we only had them at higher altitudes. Now, they are coming down again,” he says. Even though no studies exist on why the moths are back, they give Wallnöfer hope that pesticide exposure is reducing and that community efforts in this corner of Italy are worthwhile. “Our work is slowly bearing fruit,” he says.