In May, the European Commission announced its intention to halve the use and risk of pesticides, while also reducing the use of fertilisers, antibiotics and increasing organic farming. The targets are currently non-binding, but it is possible binding targets could be set in legislation.
According to notes from a 30 March meeting, the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) told Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, then deputy to the EU’s Agriculture Commissioner that the pesticides target was not “realistic”.
The notes continued: “On the basis of projections concerning the products which will hit the market and those for which the authorisation will not be renewed between today and 2030, the crop protection industry considers that a reduction of 25% of the use of chemical pesticides, whatever the risk of their use, is achievable by 2030.”
In response to a query from Unearthed, ECPA director general Géraldine Kutas said: “In these meetings, we mentioned that we are open to discuss a reduction target for pesticides use and risk but we have questioned the scientific basis of the 50% reduction target.”
She added that the ECPA “didn’t mention pro-actively a specific number for the reduction target,” but “when asked by the Commission about what we think would be achievable we told them that we consider that a reduction of 25% would be achievable by 2030, as a result of new innovation arriving to the market and older chemistry being removed.”
One month previously, the major European farming lobby group Copa Cogeca (CC) also pushed back against the plans at a reception held with Frans Timmermans, the EU’s Vice President for the Green Deal.
According to internal Commission emails following the event, which was attended by the 70 presidents represented by CC, “many of them also pointed out that the ambition of the [European Green Deal] is too high (pesticides were mentioned) and will drive farmers out of business”.
Erik Millstone, Emeritus Professor of Science Policy at the University of Sussex, told Unearthed: “There is plenty of evidence that current levels of use of pesticides are harming biodiversity, water quality and public health. There is also lots of scope for the reduction of pesticide use, though it’s difficult to know the magnitude of the scope until you try.
“Unless you set a target and try to achieve it, you definitely won’t achieve it. It’s good to set a challenging target and then try to meet it. If the EU only sets a target that the pesticides industry is happy with then it will be a poor target indeed.”
Meanwhile, in its response to the EU’s consultation on the plans on 16 March, Bayer stated that it had committed to cut the overall environmental impact of its products by 30%, rather than cut their use.
The company argued that “the sustainable use of pesticides should rather reduce the risk and impact of the use of pesticides on the environment rather than their use”.
The EU’s plans to cut agrochemical use are part of the European Green Deal, a sweeping new policy programme that has been promoted as the EU’s attempt to achieve economic growth while addressing the ecological and climate crises.
But the plans still face hurdles before they can take effect: the Commission has to turn the policies into legislative proposals and agree them with EU member states and the EU’s parliament. Member states will then have to implement the changes and some may oppose them. There will be further opportunities for companies and lobby groups to attempt to influence this process.
It has also been suggested that the targets could be changed in the future, with Agriculture Commissioner Wojciechowski saying this summer that “these objectives would have to be revised” if they are shown to threaten food security or undermine competitiveness of Europe’s agriculture sector.
Toxicologist Dr Angeliki Lyssimachou, of campaign group Pesticide Action Network Europe, told Unearthed: “These targets are the EU’s vision, but it is not yet clear how they will be implemented or measured. Member States must now promote sustainable agricultural systems that do not depend on the use of chemical pesticides. These agri-industry lobby groups will still create obstacles or argue that their products are actually safer and that the risk has been reduced.”
A Commission spokesperson told Unearthed: “When it comes to the targets, we will of course take the situation of individual Member States into account and analyse the impact nationally when proposing binding targets – the overall target is 50% for the EU as a whole. To achieve this, we will support our farmers with alternative tools for crop protection, including revising the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive, enhance provisions on integrated pest management (IPM) and promote greater use of safe alternative ways of protecting harvests from pests and diseases.
“The public consultation on this has already been launched. We will be discussing with each Member State individually and make country specific recommendations by the end of this year to support them to achieve the ambitious objectives we have set out and reflect this in the Common Agricultural Policy strategic plans. Again, these targets are ambitious, but they are achievable, if we all, institutions, Member States, farmers and the industry, work together.”