Why care about pesticides? Your questions answered

Credit: Alexia Barakou

1) What are pesticides used for and why?

Food plants have always needed to be protected against disease, pests and harmful organisms – insects, weed, fungus, bacteria and more. Historically, farmers used natural ingredients to deal with them. But with the growing world population and the boom of industrial-scale agriculture, substances that could repel pests, regulate growth and produce high yields became increasingly indispensable. Chemical and synthetic pesticides offered an easy way out.

According to the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization), 20 to 40 per cent of crops are lost each year to weed competition, pests, and plant diseases. Industry giants claim that without plant protection products – pesticides – it would be “twice as much”.

In 20 years, the international market for agricultural pesticides has doubled, to about €52 billion in 2019. Europe’s €12 billion in pesticide sales that same year was a significant share. As plants and pests develop resistance to pesticides, many farmers increase their use to secure the same yield. Squeezed between industrial pricing and EU agricultural subsidies designed for mass production, many of them are dependent on chemical weedkillers (herbicides), insecticides, rodenticides and fungicides. They are locked in, as the organization Foodwatch explains in their June 2022 report on how the present agricultural system traps farmers in economically and environmentally unsustainable patterns.

2) Why should pesticides concern me?

We are in a biodiversity crisis. Species go extinct at an alarming rate, faster than they have for 65 million years, since the meteor wiped out the dinosaurs. The global food system is part of the reason why. This system promotes monocultures and relies on fertilizers and pesticides, which contaminate soil, vegetation, and can stay in water sources for long or forever.

In addition to killing insects, weeds and rodents, pesticides can be toxic to many host organisms – like pollinating and soil insects, birds, and fish. Without pollinators, scientists warn, modern agriculture is extremely vulnerable to the climate crisis. Up to 75 per cent of the 115 top food crops rely on animal pollination, including nutrient-rich foods. The vicious circle goes on, as intensive farming is itself a major source of climate pollutant emissions, accounting for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

There is also an ongoing controversy about the health hazards pesticides pose for humans, most notably illustrated by the case of a herbicide called glyphosate. One of the most widely used weedkillers in Europe and worldwide, it has been declared “probably” carcinogenic by the International Agency for the Research on Cancer, an agency under the World Health Organization. This conclusion is contested by the industry and some EU agencies.

3) How exactly does the use of pesticide affect natural life?

Pesticides are designed to be toxic for all organisms other than the farmed crop, including crucial insects and pollinators. A 2017 Dutch-German study from protected areas in Germany documented a 75 per cent loss in the insect population in 27 years. In the UK, the loss is estimated at 58 per cent decrease in 17 years. 

Bees, when collecting nectar or pollen and water, may take up pesticide residues. Beekeepers have observed massive colony losses and unusual weakening of bee numbers over the last 10 to 15 years, especially in Western European countries: France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, cites intensive agriculture and pesticide use as two probable contributing factors.

Insecticide does also have an effect on bird populations all over Europe, disrupting their food chains and ability to feed hatchlings. Birds that specialize in agricultural landscapes are decreasing the most. Populations of farmland birds in the EU fell by 59 per cent between 2005 and 2020. The same species do much better when they live in cities, Ariel Brunner of Bird Life International told IE. “This shows us that it is indisputable that it is our agricultural systems that kill them. Agricultural lands are turning into ecological wastelands.”

4) But don’t we need pesticides for stable food production and food security?

This is not black and white. Some (partly industry-funded) studies predict significantly less yield – between 10 and 20 per cent – following the planned EU pesticide reduction. They leave the impression that food production cannot risk such reforms.

But many stress that the lands’ capacity for crop and livestock output is already at its limits, and only worsens due to pest resistance, degraded soil and loss of biodiversity. In the long run, pesticides seem to put food security in danger, rather than guarantee it.

There are calls from scientists and environmentalists to phase out pesticides completely, or by 80 per cent in the years ahead. However, the proposed EU regulation is not to abolish pesticides altogether, but to slash the use by 50 per cent by 2030. In two different studies (here and here), French scientists have found that it is completely possible to sharply reduce chemical spraying of crops without losing yields.

What’s more, according to Dave Goulson of Sussex University, “we grow three times as many calories, very roughly, as we require to feed everybody. But about a third of that food goes to waste, and a third of it gets fed to animals.” It is then not so much the problem of quantity and available crops, as the question of consumer behaviors, price and distribution — both within Europe and to other regions of the world that are more vulnerable to food scarcity.

In fact, industrial agriculture as such has never secured access to food for everyone globally. Although production of major crops has more than tripled since the 1960s — in part because of pesticides and fertilizers — one in nine people went hungry in 2019. At the same time, overweight and obesity have become public health emergencies. Nearly 40 million children under the age of five reported as overweight that same year.

5) How does the pesticide problem translate into European politics?

On 22 June 2022 the EU Commission presented a long-awaited proposal for the first binding law to reduce pesticide use by 50 per cent by 2030. It is labeled SUR, short for Sustainable use of pesticide regulation. However, it is only a proposal, and it is about to hit a wall of opposition when the 27 EU governments and EU parliamentarians debate it in the coming months.

This proposal for a pesticide reduction law follows a related decision on 2 June 2022 which was a real political achievement: EU governments agreed to start registering and reporting publicly on actual pesticide use in Europe in a system called SAIO, Statistics on agricultural input and output. So far, there has been no harmonized system for this – and no chance to fully measure whether use decreases or increases. Now, for the first time in the EU, it will be mandatory for states to submit data on pesticide use. But the original proposal has been watered down. The statistics will only be published from 2028, not long before the 2030 reduction target date.

The first EU attempt to deal with the risks and impacts of pesticide use dates back to 2009, and the Sustainable use of pesticides directive (SUD). It was unsuccessful because it was not binding, and because it lacked tools to measure impact.

The EU Commission’s new strategy for the greening of European agriculture (called “Farm to Fork”), and revised rules, was supposed to break the impasse. The presentation of the new, binding law was planned for 23 March 2022. But by then, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had turned the tables. In light of rising prices and the war between two of the world’s top wheat suppliers, the agribusiness lobby was able to reframe the issue and paint the regulation as a threat to food security. Many politicians followed suit.

The EU Commission itself has struggled to present unity on pesticide reduction targets. The Green Deal Commissioner has been pushing for a significant cut in pesticides. In an exclusive interview with IE, Frans Timmermans calls the problems with getting Ukraine crops to the markets “short-term considerations” that must not be used to cancel Farm to Fork, which is about “the long-term health and survivability of our agricultural sector”.

Timmerman’s fellow cabinet member and Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski holds a different view: He argues that while there is no food security threat in Europe today, nobody knows how the situation will develop, so it is important to produce more food now.

At least 15 EU governments have publicly expressed opposition to binding reduction targets, citing different national starting points, previous achievements, risk of lower yields, and fear of unfair competition with imports from countries with lower standards. If one of the biggest agricultural countries – Italy, Spain or France – should join this opposition, the proposed text will not survive.

6) Will the war in Ukraine create a food security problem in the EU?

Not in the EU, but the war will most probably affect other regions of the world.

Already prior to the war, international food prices had reached an all-time high. This was mostly due to market conditions, but also high prices of energy, fertilizers and other agricultural services. The Russian invasion of Ukraine only exacerbated an already difficult situation.

The two countries are ranked among the top three global exporters of wheat, maize, rapeseed, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil. Russia is also one of the world’s biggest fertilizer suppliers. Disruptions to Ukraine’s harvests, combined with the threat of trade restrictions on foodstuffs from Russia, could have severe consequences for countries in Africa, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region that are already vulnerable to food insecurity. Nearly 50 countries across the globe currently rely on Russia and Ukraine for at least 30 per cent of their wheat imports. For eight states this figure rises to 80 per cent, and for Eritrea it is the sole supplier. No EU country, however, is highly dependent on wheat from the two countries at war.

7) What corporate interests are at stake in the battle for pesticides?

Four agrochemical corporations hold more than two-thirds of the global pesticide market and nearly 60 per cent of the agricultural seed market: Syngenta (Chinese, state-owned), Bayer Crop Science (German), Corteva (American) and BASF (German). Allied under the name “Crop Life”,  and supported by the European farmers’ organisation Copa-Cogeca, they operate what has been called “an almost perfect lobbying machine”. Their efforts to block any binding targets on pesticide use in Europe amount to almost €10 million a year – more than the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) spends to regulate pesticides. Among lobbying tactics are calls for ‘impact studies’ meant to postpone any action, as well as mobilizing support from the US to put pressure on the EU, evidenced by a leaked presentation of Crop Life’s social media strategy from September 2021.

When one pesticide is banned, an alternative is usually already on the market. Today, 452 active pesticide substances are approved for use in the EU. The EU boasts “the strictest pesticides laws in the world”, and 937 substances have been banned, according to an EU database.

The industry’s business model could nevertheless be threatened if regulation gets tougher.

Gradually, the “Big Four” are losing market share to China and India, whose generic pesticides are four times cheaper than patented products. French NGO Le Basic estimates that the combined turnover of the “Big Four” declined by nearly $6 billion between 2014 and 2020. 

All in all, it seems the goal of the industry is not to halt the reforms forever, but until alternatives are available that would guarantee their businesses’ survival. The industry and farmers’ organizations call for robotic systems and precision farming, technological solutions that are not very controversial, but which will potentially make farmers economic dependent in new ways. Also, the industry promotes New Breeding Techniques – a new term for GMOs, genetically modified organisms, which are largely banned in Europe but widely used in the US and elsewhere. This is an issue packed with explosive ethical and political considerations.

8) Is organic farming the way out of pesticide lock-in?

It could be, but farming without pesticides is only half of the story. If farmers are to cultivate their land with less poison, they also need to change their methods; such as using longer crop rotations, less mineral fertilizers or boosting natural pest control.

Organic farming usually means less yield. But the reduction it entails would be only a fraction of what we currently feed to livestock. Cutting down on meat consumption alone would thus significantly mitigate the pesticide problem.

Does less yield mean less profit for the farmers? Not necessarily. A global, 40-years-long study of 55 organic crops on five continents found that, despite lower output, organic farming delivered 22 and 35 per cent more profits than conventional farming. The explanation? Farmers were able to capture high-value markets and achieve profit/cost ratios that were 20 to 24 per cent higher than in conventional farming.

There are also studies that point to a middle way.They show that the pesticide reduction targets proposed by the EU Commission are achievable with little loss in productivity and profitability.  In 2017, French scientists concluded a study of more 900 commercial farms: “We failed to detect any conflict between low pesticide use and both high productivity and high profitability in 77 per cent of the [researched] farms”.

What do farmers say? We asked both conventional and organic farmers for their opinion. See what they answered.

9) Do European consumers have a say on this?

Yes and no. Pesticide use and its harmful effects on biodiversity is an issue that has mobilised consumers. Twice in four years, civil society has managed to collect over one million signatures from European citizens across the EU who joined their calls to ban pesticides.

One million verified voices under a so-called European Citizen Initiative is what it takes to force demands on the EU agenda. This happened first in 2017, with a hearing in the European parliament, thanks to the “Ban glyphosate” petition that also demanded “to reform the authorisation procedure for pesticides and to set binding EU-wide targets for the reduction of pesticide use”. A ban for the contentious herbicide has so far not been decided, but nevertheless the petition was successful: the EU commission explicitly names the initiative as a reason for proposing legally binding reduction targets. The second time was in 2021, due to a “Save Bees and Farmers” campaign that called for a ban on pesticides altogether. When all the signatures have been validated, the EP will again have to arrange a public hearing on the citizens demands, probably in autumn 2022.   

The fight against pesticides continues also on a local scale. One example is a referendum in Mals in South Tyrol, Italy. Citizens there decided to ban the use of pesticides in their area. Appealed by a couple of farmers, the decision has been overruled by a regional court, and its fate now rests with the highest administrative court in Rome. But the local community is not giving up and continues to legally argue its case. They want to take a stand not only against pesticides and their impact, but also attempt to conserve the local landscape as one where industrial agriculture facilities are still a rare find.