Real pesticide action: Our moment to ally politics, people and nature

To restore fragile ecosystems and protect people’s health, we must address the use of synthetic pesticides. But as EU-level discussions on these intensify, is something more fundamental also at stake? Ben Snelson reports.

Does widespread and long-term pollution of our soil, air and water with pesticides sound like a good idea? How about exposing people to pesticides linked to diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s or reproductive disorders? 

Of course not. Because it isn’t. 

Scientific studies have shown that the current use of pesticides drenching Europe’s crops is also fuelling science-based fears surrounding the future of agricultural productive capacity and long-term food security. If we fail to take action now, our window of opportunity will close, and the prospect of a ‘Silent Spring’ will become very real. 

It sounds dramatic, and it should. Because it is. 

The moment 

In January, the European Citizens’ Initiative ‘Save Bees and Farmers’ held a major hearing at the European Parliament, with several EU Commissioners present. Supported by 250 organisations and 1.2 million citizens across Europe, it called for a reduction of pesticides of 80% by 2030 and a phase-out by 2035, as well as biodiversity recovery and real support for farmers in the transition. This initiative illustrates the scale of pan-European unity between the scientific community and general public in requesting strong measures on synthetic pesticides.

The first step in this direction is the full, unwavering support for and implementation of an ambitious Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation (SUR) – without delay. A cornerstone of the European Commission’s SUR’s proposal, published in June 2022 – alongside a 50% reduction in the use of chemical pesticides by 2030 – is the implementation of ‘Integrated Pest Management’ (IPM): the use of preventive, physical, biological or other non-chemical methods of pest control. Synthetic pesticides are to be applied only as a last resort when all the other methods fail. Through applying IPM, we can already reduce the use of synthetic pesticides. 

On demo farms across Europe, the research project IPM works is engaged in achieving a 50% reduction in pesticide use. These solutions – adaptable to different regions and crops – have been described by the European Court of Auditors as “common sense”. Alas, sometimes “common sense” is less common than one might hope. 

Forgetting something? 

The SUR proposal has been the subject of relentless, groundless, attacks even before its publication. Many of these attacks instrumentalise the war in Ukraine, advancing the fallacy of a European food security crisis to postpone the proposal’s publication and delay discussions at EU level.

There is no shortage of food in the EU. Indeed, in its recent “Drivers of Food Security” paper, the Commission states clearly that “food availability is not at risk in the EU today”, and that it is “self-sufficient for key agricultural products and achieves a stable overall food export surplus”.

But while waxing lyrical about non-existent threats to European food security, industry discourse conveniently forgets – or deliberately ignores – one fundamental fact: much of the content of the SUR proposal simply aims to ensure the implementation of existing EU law. So what is at stake here is not limited to human health, biodiversity survival, and long term food security. Also threatened is the reputation of the EU as an institution established around the rule of law.

The existing legislation in question is the Sustainable Use of Pesticides law from 2009, which sought to act on the challenges facing biodiversity and human health by making IPM mandatory from 2014 onwards. But the overall progress in implementation by Member States has been insufficient in meeting the Directive’s main objectives: to reduce the overall risks deriving from pesticide use and our dependency on them. Indeed, so lax had many Member States become on this directive that the Commission, in 2020, threatened “decisive legal action in the face of systematic non-compliance”

Fox in the henhouse

In Europe alone, the pesticide industry – a sector dominated by just four companies, and valued at €53 billion – spends €10 million a year on lobbying (more than the entire budget of the European Food Safety Authority – the EU body charged with regulating pesticides!). Much of this, as a report by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) unveiled, is channelled tactically toward weakening the implementation of EU environmental plans – particularly the European Green Deal’s Farm to Fork Strategy, one of whose legislative texts is the SUR proposal. 

Political decision-makers have the responsibility to act in the public interest and not in that of the private sector. Yet some arguments opposing the SUR proposal heard repeatedly in this debate, including the deeply flawed food security narrative, echo those used by the pesticide industry itself. 

A thousand reasons to end pesticide use

Pesticides are costing us dearly. It has been revealed that the price-tag of pesticides for society is twice the size of the profits made by the pesticides industry.

Species are going extinct 1,000 times faster than pre-human extinction rates, and evolution can’t keep up. Pesticides are a central cause of this dramatic decline in biodiversity worldwide. Sprayed across millions of hectares of European cropland every year, they do not discriminate between their targets, with ‘pesticide drift’ blowing long distances through the air to reach countless unintended victims, including pollinators, birds, aquatic life, and yes – people

Those most dramatically threatened by pesticides (and intensive agriculture) are pollinators. By one estimate, between 1989 and 2016 the global population of flying insects plummeted by 75%. Flying insects are responsible for pollinating 84% of (mostly fruit and vegetable) crops globally, and a study has shown that the absence of pollinators in Europe would imply a 25-32% reduction in the production of crops partially dependent on natural pollination. 

Farmland bird populations have also fallen sharply – a fact naturally corresponding to declining food sources (insects) as well as direct exposure to toxins and the disappearance of nesting habitats such as hedgerows, field margins and trees. 

But the effects of pesticides extend beyond farms. Highly concentrated pesticide run-off also leeches into streams and rivers, polluting aquatic ecosystems with other harmful cocktails of fertilisers and pharmaceuticals.

Pesticides threaten people too. In addition to the obvious victims – the farmers and farm workers most directly exposed to them – children, pregnant women and unborn babies are especially vulnerable to pesticides. Exposure during pregnancy can cause childhood and infancy cancers. 

Studies have also shown direct causal links between exposure to pesticides and a higher risk of Parkinson’s. Another report in 2021 outlined the alarming results of a series of tests for pesticides in the bedrooms of houses located near farmland. 

Other evidence still highlights that the agricultural produce (especially fruit) we consume is widely and increasingly contaminated with residues of the most hazardous category of pesticides, including those linked to cancer, birth defects and heart disease. 

Additionally, existing pesticide risk assessment procedures in Europe are not fit for purpose: they do not consider all products; studies included are outdated and few in number; some exposure routes are disregarded; and the models for predicting exposure underestimate real exposure duration, weather conditions or health characteristics of those typically exposed. 

The upshot here being: drastic urgent action on pesticides is needed. These products are not as innocuous as industry would have us believe. Not for nature, not for farmers, not for those living on or near farms, and especially not for babies and children. 

All eyes on EU

As negotiations on the SUR proposal lumber forward, and still face many obstacles, it is now essential that a vast majority of political decision-makers vocally demonstrate their commitment to the protection of EU farmers, citizens and the environment, to the application of the law and to the adoption of an ambitious SUR proposal without further delay. Only through united strength, both in the European Parliament and in the Council, can we ensure the future we all want, our natural world needs, and our children and future generations deserve.