In its recent legislative proposals on agriculture the European Commission linked the protection of nature with a reduction in pesticide use. While it is an important connection to make, it is not an obvious one.
The proposals suggest that our current approach to pesticide use leaves little room for the protection of nature, ecosystem defense or the restoration of natural areas.
As such, the European Commission’s approval of both legally-binding targets to halve the use of chemical pesticides and restore nature across the European Union is a landmark decision.
Nature and agriculture: a power couple
Everything in our environment is interconnected, regardless of political or territorial boundaries. If I spray pesticides on my fields some of those pesticides leach through soil and remain there for a long time; some end up in the water supply and may spread out, underground, to areas far from the original spraying site. Some affect the nervous system of beneficial insects, thus reducing biodiversity and ecosystem services.
In short, this is a chain of events which cannot be seen with the naked eye, but which is proven by science and which has been demonstrated campaigns like “Change the Earth”, coordinated by Federbio, together with Isde, Legambiente, Lipu, Slow Food Italy and WWF, and under the sponsorship of Ispra (the Institute for Environmental Protection of the Italian Ministry of Environment). Through sampling and analysis, the study showed that lands cultivated with pesticides and herbicides harbor widespread residues that negatively affect the network of microorganisms that are vital for soil fertility. DDT and its secondary metabolites have been found in several soil samples, showing that, more than four decades after it was banned, its molecules remain in the soils where it was once sprayed.
I don’t think there can be a single person in Europe who would be happy at the thought that these invisible dangers lurk in our soil and waters, capable of degrading the productive capacity of soils and water quality.
The true cost of pesticides: the environmental bill
And yet the European Commission’s proposal provoked an outcry from certain circles who claim that alternatives to chemical pesticides are more expensive. Some in Europe are even speculating about potential financial support for farmers who need to cut their pesticide use to comply with the new regulations. One might think that such support for the ecological transition is the right strategy, but one issue should probably be addressed more thoroughly: the environmental costs that are never taken into account. Until negative externalities are added to the total balance pesticide use, all financial estimates regarding the cost of their substitution will be inaccurate and above all, a lie.
What does it mean to produce without applying sustainability models based on the principles of agroecology?
It certainly means leaving a deep, sometimes indelible ecological footprint, the cost of which is almost always borne by future generations: our children and grandchildren. This approach puts the environmental cost of pesticides on the back burner. If they were to be acknowledged as real costs with a price tag, perhaps the ecological transition would happen more naturally and without the public funding (compensation) demanded by agribusiness.
Organic farmers invest financially in order to get certifications that validate their choices and hope for the support of rural development programs. Meanwhile, those who persist in the use of synthetic chemicals, which leave a concrete ecological footprint and pollute soils and water sources, are not called upon to pay any environmental bill. On the contrary, if they are asked to transition to a more sustainable model, they demand public money be given to them.
We must begin to change our perspective, but the road ahead is still long and winding, especially with the shadows of financial speculation lurking around every corner, and often coming into the foreground to demand center stage.
 Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) is an insecticide used in agriculture. It was banned in North America and Europe many years ago.