European Commission ready to fight for pesticide reduction despite fears of food loss

The Sustainable Use of Pesticides (SUR) Regulation will be the first binding law to come out of Farm to Fork, the EU’s strategy to make European agriculture green and sustainable. The regulation will oblige governments to drastically reduce – by 50% – the overall use of pesticides in European agriculture by 2030.

European farmers will be affected, and they need to be on board for the changes to succeed, concedes Timmermans, who says ‘the vested interests are scaring them into thinking that what we are doing is going to cost them their livelihoods’.

The Green Deal commissioner insists the new policy will help farmers in the long run, not hurt them. “We have a very difficult situation because of the war in Ukraine,” he told IE. “But if we use these issues as a reason for not having farm to fork, we will be killing the long-term health and survival of our agricultural sector for very short-term considerations.”

Scientists express it even more radically. “The gut reactions after the outbreak of war strike me as something like deciding to set fire to my house when I’m cold to make it warmer,” Josef Settele, one of the main authors of the IPBES Global Biodiversity Assessment Report. . “The war has shown that many decision makers have not really understood the importance of sustainable land use and the link to species loss.”

Credit: Alexia Barakou
At least 15 EU member states have expressed reservations about the proposed new law.

Same sales, more toxic substances

The 2009 EU pesticide directive called for a sharp reduction in use, but it proved ineffective and was largely ignored by member states. Timmermans told IE that soft targets “get us nowhere”, adding: “Binding targets give certainty to industry and the agricultural sector. There is a huge and growing understanding that ecocide is a direct threat to us.

While 937 active pesticide substances are not approved in the EU, a further 453 are. Pesticide sales volumes have remained almost the same over the past decade. At the same time, most active substances are toxic at much lower concentrations than before, according to ecologist Matthias Liess of the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig: “This means that actually more toxicity is is propagated”.

Without radical change, scientists warn that biodiversity will be damaged beyond repair. Time is running out and there is no more time to waste to turn things around, they say. Excessive use of pesticides leads to declining insect and bird populations and increasing soil and water contamination, while posing multiple risks to human health.

Insects are disappearing at an ‘alarming rate’

“We are in a biodiversity crisis. Species are disappearing faster than they have in the 65 million years since the meteor wiped out the dinosaurs. And accelerating,” Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex in England, told Investigate Europe. Insects are his specialty. Not only do insects represent two-thirds of all known species, but they are the ones that enable other living organisms, especially through pollination.

The uncontrolled growth of industrial-scale agriculture and its reliance on pesticides and fertilizers means that vital insect habitats and natural ecosystems are under attack. According to Timmermans, 70% of soil in the EU today is in an unhealthy state, and 80% of this soil is agricultural land or grassland.

However, chemicals and agri-food are not the only culprits. Climate change is another key driver, scientists say. But together, they form an impending disaster.

Flying insects are disappearing at an “alarming rate”, according to Kent Wildlife Trust, a British conservation charity. They found that the number of flying insects in the UK countryside that are hit by cars fell by almost 60% between 2004 and 2021. These ‘splatometric’ surveys complement research carried out elsewhere. A 2017 German-Dutch study of protected areas in Germany documented a 75% loss of the insect population in 27 years.

Made with Flourish

Less wheat from Ukraine

On the surface, governments agree that pesticides should only be used as a last resort and that means using less. But they are keenly aware that many farmers are grappling with deep economic uncertainty in the wake of soaring energy and fertilizer prices.

Additionally, the war in Ukraine has created uncertainty in food production globally, as Ukraine is the main supplier of wheat and many other grains to the world market. Since the Russian invasion on February 24, it seems that politicians in the European Parliament and several governments have been swayed by the argument that fewer pesticides mean smaller harvests, and by a call from farmers’ organizations and the lobby pesticides to produce more, not less, in these uncertain times.

East-West Division

During the latest debate between EU agriculture ministers, at least 15 countries expressed doubts about the most recent draft. Only Germany’s agriculture ministry, now led by the Green Party, openly supports the 50% reduction target by 2030 – a stark contrast to the previous government’s actions on environmental regulations.

Austria, Finland and the Czech Republic all require reduction targets to take into account national circumstances and past achievements. “We expect an intensive discussion on the subject. In practice, it will be very difficult to achieve this ambitious goal,” Czech government spokesman Vojtěch Bílý told Investigate Europe.

When a draft regulation was leaked in March, 12 central and eastern European governments protested the binding targets it set. Meanwhile, at least 15 countries have asked the Commission to introduce emergency exceptions to the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), according to a source familiar with the negotiations. Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski revealed in June that he was pushing for a series of derogations, including allowing the cultivation and possible use of pesticides in protected areas, and ignoring the principle of “fight integrated pest control” of crop rotation.

The Ukrainian War: Stop or Go?

Although facing strong opposition from member states and the agribusiness lobby, for Frans Timmermans, the war in Ukraine is a reason to push more, not less, for regulation. He argues that implementing the farm-to-fork strategy and reducing pesticide use is exactly what will save biodiversity, agriculture and the ability to feed the world. “We are losing pollinators so quickly,” he told IE. “It is a bigger threat to our long-term food security than the war in Ukraine, because 75% of major food crops depend on animal pollination. Please disconnect the immediate crisis from the long-term adaptation we need.

Investigate Europe’s new investigative series, “Silent Death: Europe’s deep-rooted pesticide problem and abiodiversity crisis”, will be released with media partners across Europe on Friday 24 June.

Aurora J. William