Leaving no farmer behind: Towards a sustainable use of pesticides

16 March 2023
Leaving no farmer behind: Towards a sustainable use of pesticides

Did you know that, in a recent study, traces of chemical pesticides were found in 60% of hair samples of Europeans, and in most of the hair of Members of the European Parliament?

That nearly 80% of insects have disappeared over the last thirty years on our continent?

And that, over the past ten years, on average, one small-scale farm had to give up business every 3 minutes?

These are just some of the striking examples that show the negative effects of the mass use of chemical pesticides on our daily lives: be it on the quality of farming communities in Europe, the health of human beings or the flourishing of biodiversity.

If European agriculture is reaching a dead end, as some argue, is there a way out? And how can we promote an agricultural policy that thrives with less chemicals, promotes sustainable farming methods, ensures the nutrition of people and preserves Europe's rural traditions? 

Committing to less pesticides

The European Commission took a first important step in June 2022 with the publication of its proposals aimed at revising the current rules on plant protection products, i.e. pesticides. Echoing the direction taken by the Farm to Fork Strategy – namely, the agricultural component of Europe's Green Deal – the proposal sets legally binding targets at EU level for the first time ever to reduce the use and the risk of chemical pesticides, and the more hazardous pesticides, by 50% by 2030. The proposals also include environmentally friendly pest control, ensuring that farmers use chemical pesticides only as a last resort, and a ban on all pesticides in sensitive areas. What is more, the use of all pesticides is prohibited in places such as urban green areas, including public parks or gardens, playgrounds, recreation or sports grounds and public paths, as well as protected areas such as Natura 2000 sites. 


Progressive cities and regions, drivers for sustainable agriculture 

Against the backdrop of conservative voices, who argue that the COVID-19 crisis and the war in Ukraine have changed the situation, and that the EU's objectives of a more sustainable agriculture is no longer a priority, Socialists in the European Parliament and in the European Committee of the Regions continue leading the fight for more sustainable agriculture that leaves no one behind.

The interest of cities and regions is obvious, given the fact that, in some Member States, the Common Agricultural Policy is implemented at regional level and the agricultural sector has a significant economic weight in many European regions. 

PES Group member, Heinz-Joachim Höfer, Member of the Municipal Council of Altenkirchen (Germany), and the Committee's rapporteur for the Sustainable use of plant protection products opinion, advocates for a balanced approach between the legitimate protection of the environment and biodiversity on the one hand and, on the other hand, the necessary support for farmers to move towards a truly sustainable agricultural system.

In his draft opinion, adopted at this week's plenary session, he makes a series of concrete proposals, including:

  • Adressing the fact that the index proposed by the European Commission to assess the reduction in the use and risk of pesticides is based largely on the amount of active ingredients, and only a small proportion on their intrinsic toxicity. This means that the use of a less toxic biological pesticide may be assigned the same level of risk as a hypertoxic chemical pesticide. The opinion therefore calls for a reasoned and objective review of the risk assessment to better take into account the toxicity of products

  • Proposing that the assessment and authorisation procedure for pesticides be reviewed to take into account the cocktail effects of pesticides and their long-term effects on human health, the complete formulation of the products, not just the active molecule, and the acquisition of resistance to these products by harmful organisms.

  • Extending the sensitive areas to ecologically sensitive areas, but also public parks and gardens, playgrounds and sports fields frequented by vulnerable populations such as children or pregnant women. In view of the increasing contamination of water sources by pesticides, the rapporteur also proposed extending these sensitive areas to water catchment areas and areas where water is stored, such as groundwater. It also proposes extending the perimeter around which pesticide application is prohibited from 3 metres to 50 metres for areas occupied by vulnerable populations, in order to effectively protect these areas. 

  • Imports of agricultural products into Europe need to comply with the same phytosanitary rules as those imposed on European farmers. Such imports must not cause unfair competition and endanger the health of the population. On the other hand, products prohibited within the European Union must not be exported to third countries. 

  • Taxing pesticides in order to finance the transition to sustainable agriculture.


Leaving no farmer behind

It all comes down to the very essence of the transition of agriculture from a productivity model that threatens biodiversity and exposes farmers to multiple crises, to a sustainable agricultural model with a long-term vision, based on agroecological practices and less dependence on chemicals (whose prices have risen sharply); a system that will provide farmers with a decent income and make them more resilient to the price volatility that threatens them today.

Farmers are not guilty of anything. They are responding to the post-war productivist political leadership aimed at ensuring the European Union's food security. Today, this food security can only be achieved through the ecological transition and the reduction of chemical inputs in agriculture. Farmers should not be left alone in this transition.  

Progressive cities and regions will continue to defend an ambitious Green Deal, which needs to be a just Green Deal for all Europeans, first and foremost for farmers who provide food security for people all over Europe, be it in cities or rural areas. 


© Photo credits: unsplash / Jed Owen