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The EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy: Is The Pesticide Reduction Target Still Realistic?

In May 2020, the European Union launched the ‘Farm to Fork Strategy’ as part of the EU Green Deal. The strategy seeks to build a more sustainable European farming system by phasing out synthetic pesticides. But the onset of Covid-19 and the perpetuation of the Ukraine crisis have reset priorities for governments, corporations, and consumers. Is the strategy’s pesticide target still realistic in 2023?

The EU’s approach to pesticides

Before introducing the Farm to Fork strategy, the EU already attempted, to a limited degree of success, to regulate the use of pesticides by adopting the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD) in 2009.1 The Directive set out rules for sustainable pesticide use and promoted Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and non-chemical inputs to maintain crop yield.

In May 2020, the EU Commission introduced the Farm to Fork Strategy, a ten-year plan to shape a fairer, healthier and more environmentally friendly food system.2 The strategy forms part of the European Green Deal, the bloc’s broader initiative to set itself on the path to a green transition - the ultimate goal being climate neutrality in 2050. This was supplemented by the ‘Climate Target Plan’, published in September 2020, which set a target for the EU to reduce 55% of greenhouse gases by 2030.3

Key targets include reducing pesticide and fertiliser use by 50%. It also seeks to make 25% of farming organic by 2030.

Why are pesticides harmful?

Pesticides can remain in the environment decades after use, contaminating the atmosphere, surrounding soil, and critical water sources. This can significantly affect public health and the long-term health of natural and agricultural ecosystems.

As pesticides leach into the soil, they accumulate in our ecosystems and can eventually enter our food chains through a process known as ‘bioaccumulation’. When pesticides enter the human body through accidental ingestion, skin contact or inhalation, it can lead to numerous negative health effects. Some health effects linked to pesticides include neurological, gastrointestinal, respiratory and reproductive issues.4

The effects of pesticides on wildlife are also well documented. Excessive pesticide use has been deemed a factor in the decline of insect populations worldwide - many of which play important ecological roles. This, in turn, affects ecosystem services such as pollination and natural pest control, leading to biodiversity loss, environmental damage and the loss of livelihoods. An IUCN study estimated that the goods and services provided by ecosystems are worth USD 33 trillion per year.6 The loss of biodiversity can therefore have a reverberating effect on the global economy.

The EU’s consumption of pesticides is a concern for many farmers and environmental groups. Launched in 2012, The Save the Bees European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) calls for the phasing out synthetic pesticides by 2035. The ECI received 1.2 million signatures from EU citizens, pointing to the public desire for the EU to shift towards more sustainable farming methods. The initiative is currently pending further legislative action from the EU parliament.6

Industry reactions to the ‘Farm to Fork Strategy’

Agribusinesses and farmers fear the strategy will reduce crop yield and impede crop growth. Proponents argue this will trigger a domino effect on farmers' livelihoods, food prices, and food security in the bloc.

Pesticide industry lobby groups such as CropLife Europe find the 50% reduction target unrealistic. CropLife stated in their position paper that phasing out pesticides could cause farmers to continue to lose tools faster than new ones can be found.7 Opposers also argue that seven of the world’s staple crops will have lower yields if certain chemical substances are prohibited from use. Multiple other studies, including a study by the University of Kiel and the EU commission’s own study, also reached the same conclusion on the Farm to Fork strategy’s impacts.8,9

An interesting counterargument is that relaxing pesticide reduction targets may not contribute to Europe’s food security. According to a 2016 report, the majority of cereal crops produced in the EU are used to feed animals.10 This means transitioning to more plant-based diets, rather than continuing to use pesticides, could be the answer to maintaining food security.

Discover how animal agriculture impacts the environment - for good and for bad

Aside from concerns about the strategy’s impacts on farmer livelihoods and food security, some argue it also puts the EU’s food sovereignty at risk. France’s former Agricultural Minister Julien Denormandie said, “[we] will do everything to liberate the potential of agriculture from now on”.11

On the flip side, the strategy’s supporters have made counter arguments, reinforcing that a transition to an agro-ecological food system is the only way to guarantee long-term food security. Proponents of the strategy, including the Slowfood Movement, believe that a long-term approach to a sustainable, resilient food system is critical and the only way to respect the well-being of farmers, consumers and the environment.12

Supporters emphasise that phasing out pesticides will improve environmental health in the medium to long term. This is because reducing pesticide use allows our soils to regenerate, leading to increased nutrient uptake, soil fertility and nutrient cycling that will help soils to remain productive long term.13 Some farmers who have eliminated pesticides, or use only bio-pesticides, have already found an improvement in crop yield and quality.14

The latest policy developments 

The EU Commission was expected to publish a revision of the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD) in March last year. The SUD includes a legally binding pesticide reduction target in line with the Farm to Fork Strategy. However, the Commission decided to hold off on the revision, citing geopolitical concerns caused by the recent Russia-Ukraine Crisis.15

In February this year, over 85 NGOs joined hands to submit an open letter to the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. Signatories of the open letter, including ClientEarth, PAN Europe and WWF, encouraged the President to forge ahead with publishing the strategy. The letter argues the law represents a key political achievement for the President and is critical to meet the EU’s International commitments and the EU Green Deal.16

What is the middle ground?

The question remains whether the strategy’s goal of phasing out pesticides should be relaxed, considering the food and energy crises and the economic aftershocks of COVID-19.

A multitude of factors play into this decision. Firstly, studies evidence that the strategy will lead to lower crop yield, at least in the shorter-term. This means there will be a definite impact on farmer livelihoods. Secondly, rising food and energy prices are a perpetuating concern for consumers. Though natural farming offers higher-quality food, to what extent should consumers bear the burden of this transition? 

The words of Copa-Cogeca ring true to an extent, “Europe and the wider world have fundamentally changed since the publication of the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies in May 2020.” The EU may need to adapt its strategy to a world tormented by the triple whammies of the Ukraine crisis, Covid-19, and climate change. 

According to the think tank IDDRI, transitioning to a sustainable European food system is more beneficial to global food security in the long term. IDDRI argues crop yields in Europe have been stagnating due to climate shocks, loss of pollinators and soil degradation. Seeking to ‘ensure food stability’ by applying pesticides could, therefore, be futile and may make it ‘close to impossible to increase expected yields’ in the long run.17

Biocontrol solutions

Bio-fertilisers and pesticides (‘biocontrol solutions’) may offer a middle ground to stakeholders on both sides of the debate. Biocontrol is a method of managing plant disease, inhibiting plant pathogens, improving plant immunity or modifying the environment via natural methods. This might include integrating beneficial microorganisms into the soil or using rotational cropping systems. Though biocontrol solutions are less detrimental to the environment, it still comes with risks, especially when non-native species are introduced.18

Isabelle Babrzynski, Advocacy and Communication Manager at International Biocontrol Manufacturer’s Association (IBMA) explains that one of the reasons biocontrol is not referenced as often as a solution to the strategy debate is that “Biocontrol solutions are not direct replacements of pesticides and fertilisers. Using these substances requires training, knowledge exchange and the changing of habits, which takes time to implement.” Another barrier to bio-pesticide uptake is that the EU Commission does not have an official definition of ‘biocontrol’, making it difficult to set biocontrol usage goals.

Looking ahead

Although transitioning to a sustainable farming system benefits the environment and public health in the long term, a balance must be struck between immediate needs and long-term food security. Rushing into organic farming may burn the candle on both ends, as evidenced by Sri Lanka’s unsuccessful transition to organic farming in 2019.19 The country had to abandon its national experiment to transition to organic farming after domestic rice production fell by 20% in the first six months.

The strategy’s action plan already has plans to aid farmers with this process. For instance, the Commission will facilitate the use of bio-pesticides in the market. It also committed to conducting research and development to overcome data gaps and promote evidence-based policy-making. However, all this is merely on paper. Until proper research is conducted to show the long-term benefits of sustainable farming to food producers, it may be difficult to convince farmers whose livelihoods depend on crop yield, to discontinue pesticide-use.

For a more comprehensive understanding of the proposal, you can find more information in the F2F Action Plan strategy document

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References
  1. The European Commission, A European Green Deal, Accessed 31 May 2023.
  2. 2030 Climate Target Plan, The European Commission, Accessed 31 May 2023.
  3. “Chemical Pesticides and Human Health: The Urgent Need for a New Concept in Agriculture”, Frontiers in Public Health, 18 July 2016
  4. “Tomorrow’s production systems will be closer to nature”, IUCN, 09 Jan 2017
  5. “Save bees and farmers!: One million signatures in European Citizens’ Initiative signals EU co-legislators to keep environmental ambition”, European Commission, 5 April 2023
  6. “CropLife Europe position on the joint committee report on the Farm to Fork strategy”, CropLifeEurope, 4 January 2021
  7. Prof. Dr. Dr Christian Henning and Dr. Peter Witzke, “Economic and Environmental impacts of the Green Deal on the Agricultural Economy: A Simulation Study of the Impact of the F2f Strategy on Production, Trade, Welfare and the Environment based on the CAPR
  8. “Modelling environmental and climate ambition in the agricultural sector with the CAPRI model”, JRC Publications Repository, European Commission, 29 July 2021
  9. “False sense of security”, Green Peace, October 2020
  10. Sybille de La Hamaide and Gus Trompiz, “France bids to regain ‘food sovereignty’ with plan to boost protein crops”, Reuters, 1 December 2020
  11. Indre Anskaityte, “Slow Food: The Commission takes a promising step towards a sustainable Europe”, Slow Food, 20 May 2020
  12. David R. Montgomery and Anne Bikle, “Soil Health and Nutrient Density: Beyond Organic vs Conventional Farming”, Front. Sustain. Food Syst, 04 November 2021
  13. Oliver Moore, “EU Institutions - Productivity Now, Environment, Maybe Later”, ARC 2020, 25 March 2022
  14. “Joint open letter on the need for a strong proposal on an EU legislative framework for sustainable food systems”, Friends of The Earth, 10 February 2023
  15. “War in Ukraine and Food Security: What are the implications for Europe?”, IDDRI, Accessed 10 April 2022
  16. Dun Chun He et al, “Biological Control of Plant Diseases: An Evolutionary and Eco-Economic Consideration”, Pathogens, 10 October 2021
  17. Ted Nordhaus and Saloni Shah, “In Sri Lanka, organic farming went catastrophically wrong”, FP, 5 March 2022
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