On January 24th, Slow Food and other representatives of the “Save Bees and Farmers” European citizens’ initiative (ECI) presented their citizen-backed demands for pesticide reduction at the European Parliament. The hearing marked the peak of a two-year long campaign which gathered 1.1 million signatures across the continent. Although the debate between Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) was heated, the ECI received positive reaction from the European Commission and several supportive MEPs.
Pesticide Reduction Goes Hand in Hand with Food Security and Farmers’ Wellbeing
“What a brilliant idea to have linked the destiny of farmers and bees! Agriculture is at the forefront when it comes to fighting climate change, as well as protecting the environment and our biodiversity”, started Benoît Biteau, MEP for the Greens group.
Farmers and farm workers are the first victims of pesticides, yet the reduction of pesticide use in Europe has been met with strong resistance from several conservative MEPs. During the hearing, they expressed opposition to the ECI’s demands, in the name of defending farmers’ interests and protecting food security in the EU, but in fact repeating the same arguments made by industry lobby groups.
Madeleine Coste, policy officer at Slow Food Europe, spoke up to set a few facts straight in response to the MEPs. “I take note that many Members have chosen to perpetuate a false narrative that civil society and environmental organizations are working against farmers. This is simply untrue – our organizations dialogue closely with producers across Europe, and we know first-hand the challenges that they face, and their desire to work WITH nature and not against it”, she argued.
As chance would have it, the yearly demonstration “Wir Haben es Satt!” (We are fed up!) took place in Berlin the weekend before the hearing, where over 10 000 people walked with farmers who came from all over Germany in their tractors, to demonstrate against the industrial food system. Their demands? A socially just agriculture and biodiversity preservation.
And what about food insecurity? “Let me be clear. There is no serious scientist in Europe who thinks that a reduction of pesticides use would threaten food security”, stressed doctor Jeroen Candel from Wageningen University. As a matter of fact, it is unsustainable food systems which will pose a threat to food security.
This was made clear in December, as the European Commission identified in its detailed analysis of the “Drivers of Food Security that “the current high input intensive agricultural model, based on chemical pesticides, is likely to pose a food security threat in the medium term due to a loss of biodiversity, the likely increase in pests, decline in soil health and loss of pollinators which are essential to agricultural production.”
Reducing the use of Pesticide is Possible, Necessary and Profitable
124 different pesticides were found in the dust of European farmhouses according to Europe’s first comprehensive survey of pesticide contamination, presented to the hearing by Violette Geissen, professor of soil risks at Wageningen University.
“Pesticide residues are omni-present in ecosystems and humans. Most of the residues are hazardous. What is the real risk of being exposed to mixtures of high numbers of pesticides? Who has the answer to this? Nobody. We need legislation that applies the precautionary principle and regulates pesticide use and reduction”, Professor Geissen said.
With this in mind, cutting pesticide use is a matter of common sense, which is why the ECI demands an EU binding target of reducing the use of pesticides by 80% by 2030 and phasing them out by 2035. Since the implementation of the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD) in 2009, pesticide consumption has not decreased, but has rather increased in several EU Member States.
Nevertheless, many farmers are already embracing the change towards pesticide-free agriculture, and it is working. French cereal farmer Jean-Bernard Lozier, who has cut pesticide use by 80%, stated during the hearing: “The strong reduction in chemical inputs did not lead to significant yields losses, while I reduced my workload. I am a happy farmer, and the profitability of my farm is comparable to that of my neighbors.”
Dr Alain Peeters from Agroecology Europe argued against the common misconception that agroecological farming is less profitable – “science demonstrates quite the opposite” especially as the cost of inputs such as nitrogen-based fertilizers and fossil fuels is rising and is expected to keep rising.
Heated Debate Between Members of the European Parliament
The petition received a positive response from the European Commission’s Claire Bury, who said the EU executive had heard “loud and clear” that “citizens want healthy food without pesticides,” stressing that reducing the reliance on pesticides must be both “progressive but ambitious”.
Meanwhile, the ECI received loud support from the Parliament’s environment committee (ENVI) and among the center-left, Left and the Greens. Anja Hazekamp (Netherlands, Left) thanked the coalition for being so “political” in the face of what she described as “vicious lobbying” and Martin Hausling (Germany, Greens) pointed to the fact that urgent change is needed, as not only bees are disappearing but also farmers, at an alarming rate.
As one could expect, the center-right of Parliament was less than enthusiastic about the ECI’s demands. MEPs like Anne Sander (French, European People’s Party – right) stressed that we cannot engage in a transition too quickly, as the first priority must be ensuring “food security”.
Others waved around the idea that technology would be the silver bullet that solves it all.
Paolo de Castro (Italy, Socialists) argued for instance that in order for farmers to be able to reduce their use of pesticides, they must be given access to new tools such as New Genomic Techniques (new GMOs), to which Madeleine Coste replied that new GMOs are not a solution for sustainability, and there is little reason to believe such techniques will actually reduce the use of pesticides.
EU Credibility at Stake
As highlighted by the ECI representatives during the hearing, cutting pesticide use will require a transformation of our food system, which will bring many co-benefits for health, environment, animal welfare, and of course farmers themselves. We must transform the way we farm animals, reduce the amount of food losses and waste we generate, address trade policy, and make sustainable and healthy diets the easy, affordable and most convenient option.
Yet, whenever there is a natural or geopolitical crisis, agro-industry pushes for an intensification of food production and chemical use, and we have seen this pattern unfold in the past year. But we cannot simply delay this transition to sustainable food systems and wait until this crisis has subsided.
“My generation is not naïve – we know new crises will keep coming, and perhaps even more frequently than today. If EU leaders decide to drop the ambition to cut down on pesticides, the whole European Green Deal will be lost, and the credibility of EU institutions in the eyes of citizens will equally be lost”, Madeleine Coste concluded.
With the European elections right around the corner (mid-2024), the EU simply cannot afford to refuse to listen to citizens.
In June 2022, the European Commission presented its long-awaited : the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation (SUR). The proposal, which is meant to replace the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD), states that EU Member States would have to commit to halving pesticides use by 2030.
Since the European Commission unveiled its proposal, industry lobby groups & conservative policymakers have spared no effort to water it down, delay and even to get rid of it. The latest plot twist took place last December, when EU Member States unanimously decided that additional research must be carried out before approving the plan, thus delaying its adoption and implementation.