Fueling the climate crisis, European Union member countries continue to approve and export pesticides containing substances banned in European fields due to environmental and human health concerns, which later return to Europeans’ plates through food imports. Recent research shows the residues of 74 pesticides banned in the EU were found in food tested on the European market in 2018. Among the pesticides concerned, 22 were exported from Europe that same year. In light of this evidence, around 60 organizations from across Europe have signed a letter to the European Commission Executive Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, calling for the end of these “double standards”.
An article published by Public Eye and Unearthed exposed the double standards of the EU ban on pesticides, “Our investigation shows the hypocrisy of allowing agrochemical companies to flood low-and middle-income countries (LMICs) with substances deemed too dangerous for European agriculture.”
The study revealed that in 2018, EU member countries approved the export of 41 pesticides banned for use in the EU. “The health or environmental risks associated with these substances are dramatic: death from inhalation, birth defects, reproductive or hormonal disorders, or cancer. These substances will also contaminate drinking water sources and poison ecosystems,” emphasized Public Eye and Unearthed.
According to the UN, more than 200,000 people in developing countries die of pesticides-related poisoning each year, including both agricultural workers and the general population. Whilst the biggest contributor to this ‘deplorable’ activity, as the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics, Baskut Tuncak called it, is the UK, other EU countries including Italy, Germany, Netherlands, France, Spain, and Belgium continue to ship pesticides too harmful for EU farmers to countries like Brazil, South Africa and the Ukraine.
Double Standards at Odds with EU’s Green Deal
The export of highly toxic chemicals for food production to low-and middle-income countries doesn’t align with the EU Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategy priorities to promote the global transition towards sustainable food systems. use of hazardous pesticides cannot be accomplished unless the EU takes the lead and stops these exports.” These double standards affect Europeans too. As Public Eye explained, “the banned pesticides can find their way back to European consumers via imported food grown with the outlaw toxin,” contrary to the objective of the EU Farm to Fork strategy which is that “imported [food] products must continue to comply with relevant EU regulations and standards.”
During the opening of Terra Madre, Larissa Bombardi, professor of geography at University of Sao Paulo, explained, “Brazil consumes 20% of the world’s pesticides, making it the biggest consumer, […] I’ve mapped the advance of soybean cultivation in Brazil from south to north, which has now reached the so-called “Arc of Deforestation” in Amazonia, where two elements are clearly connected, one is deforestation and the other is the use of pesticides. Soy in Brazil today exceeds the land area of Germany, and more than 90% of this soy is transgenic (GMO). Brazil exports most of its soy to the European Union and China.”
Bombardi emphasized that the Cerrado, the Brazilian savannah, has suffered the effects in terms of water and soil contamination, and loss of biodiversity. This trend is threatening the Amazon as more land is cleared, in many cases illegally. According to a recent study, about two million tons – of which 500,000 from the Amazon, of soy grown with pesticides on illegally deforested land were used to feed EU livestock between 2008 and 2018, allowing banned toxic substances to reach European tables.
A similar story replicates itself in other Latin American countries where pesticide giants benefit from the rise of GMO monocrops, most of which are exported to the EU to feed livestock or for processed food manufacturing. These tactics go against the EU Green Deal, the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies, and the goals to reduce agri-chemical dependency, halt carbon emission, and protect biodiversity.
Sustainability at the Heart of Food Policy
In a civil societies’ policy brief supported by Slow Food on the global dimension of the Farm to Fork Strategy, the question lingers on the direction of the strategy which “remains driven by an approach aimed at making European agribusiness competitive on global markets”, whilst its intention is to reduce Europe’s climate footprint, make healthy diets more accessible, and shorten supply chains.
As a response to the Public Eye and Unearthed investigation, the European Commission proposed a new Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability to “promote safety and sustainability standards globally, leading by example and promoting a coherent approach so hazardous substances banned in the EU are not produced for exports.”
In their joint letter, Slow Food together with many other civil society organizations, remind Executive Vice-President Timmermans that “the EU has a global leadership role to play on these issues and can help to achieve an international consensus that these abhorrent practices, which result in discrimination and exploitation, must end. This could be achieved by establishing a new UN mechanism to promote a phase-out of highly hazardous pesticides globally in cooperation with FAO, WHO, UNEP, and ILO.”
A shift towards environment-friendly agricultural practices is needed more than ever. The use of pesticides threatens the biodiversity that underpins our food systems – putting the future of our food, our livelihood, health, and environment under severe threat.
In addition to the joint letter, Slow Food has joined the European Citizens’ Initiative “Save bees and farmers” to call on the European Commission to phase out the use of synthetic pesticides in Europe by 2035, act towards the restoration of biodiversity, and support the farmers in this crucial transition. Sign this initiative and help us fight to restore our ecosystems and safeguard our ability to produce good, clean, and fair food in the future !