Is German EU Presidency about to Break the European Green Deal?

European pesticide legislation is currently failing to fully protect the health of European citizens and the environment - what has happened to what was widely promoted as one of the most stringent pesticide legislative frameworks in the world? At the core of this framework is the:

  • Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD) aimed to achieve a sustainable use of pesticides in the EU;
  • Legislation on Plant Protection Products (PPPs) on the evaluation, authorisation, approval and the placing on the EU market of active substances;   
  • Legislation on Maximum Residue Levels (MRL) on concentration of pesticides used in agriculture in or outside the EU.

While European Union institutions are currently in the midst of a process to improve the implementation of this array of laws, contradictory signals are coming in from all sides, with the risk of undermining the EU Green Deal (EGD), the EU’s historical legislative effort to make the continent carbon-neutral by 2050 by restructuring every major aspect of the European economy - the bloc’s “man on the moon moment”, according to Ursula Von der Leyen.

On one hand, there is the blow delivered by the European Environment Agency’s report State of Nature in the EU 2020, which showed that agricultural activities represent “the most common overall pressures” to Europe’s biodiversity, currently declining at an alarming rate. There is also an outcry from civil society organisations that disagree with the current farming model, and demand the withdrawal of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and to end the export of pesticides banned, but produced in the EU, to third countries.

On the other hand, for example, there is the sugar beet industry pressuring one EU member state after the other to obtain derogations – i.e. exemptions - to the 2018 EU ban on neonicotinoids, a family of neuro-active insecticides, the use of which has been linked to adverse ecological effects, including the collapse of honey-bee colonies and huge losses of farmland birds due to a rapid decline in insect populations.

In the middle, is the German government, which assumed the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in July 2020, in the midst of a pandemic.

Earlier, in May 2020, the European Commission had announced the Biodiversity and the Farm to Fork strategies as key components of the EGD. At the core of these two strategies is the objective of reducing pesticide use and risk by 50% by 2030. For civil society groups campaigning for Low Impact Farming, an approach where farmers work with, rather than against nature, this objective created great expectations. In fact, they demand this 50% reduction target to be embedded in the SUD Directive currently being revised.

In May 2020, the Commission also released its conclusions following the evaluation of both legislations on Plant Protection Products (PPP) and on Maximum Residue Levels (MRL). In its REFIT evaluation to “assess if the legislation meet the needs of citizens, businesses and public institutions in an efficient manner”, the Commission identified 16 areas where implementation could be improved and could “bring substantial contribution to the achievement of the objectives of the EGD, the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy.” 

Among the sticking points, the Commission noted: “the severe delays, in particular those related to the renewal of approval of active substances and the authorisation of PPP containing approved substances, which in turn negatively affects their effectiveness.” Along with civil society, scientists and policy makers, PAN Europe estimates that the Commission’s evaluation falls short in identifying several important weaknesses of the current pesticide authorisation system, which further prevent the Regulation from fulfilling its purpose.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the public demanding that world leaders “Build Back Better”, it was the role of the Germany, which had just taken over the EU Presidency, to respond to the Commission’s concerns on delays and lack of implementation on SUD, PPPs and MRL, initiate the transfer of European Green Deal objectives into actual EU laws, and launch the EGD transition journey.

After accessing draft conclusions on SUD, REFIT of PPP and MRL Regulations from the EU Council, PAN Europe determined that, both when it comes to pesticide authorization procedure and pesticides use, Member States are:

  • Pushing for “business as usual”, rather than aligning their position with the scientific recommendations that point towards the substitution of hazardous substances by non-chemical practices, 
  • Insisting that the Commission continue assessing requests from trade partners for the EU to allow residues of banned and hazardous pesticides in imported food, rather than rejecting all such requests in order to ensure consumer protection and fair competition for EU farmers,
  • Setting aside the vital role of alternative farming techniques, such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM), despite EU leaders agreeing back in 2009 that evolution towards non-chemical methods and IPM had to be an integral part of the SUD directive.

 In parallel, according to the documents accessed by PAN Europe, the German EU Presidency appears to be refusing to:

Admit the detrimental effect of pesticides on biodiversity,

Acknowledge EU member states’ grave lack of effort in implementing pesticide legislation.

On November 27th, 2020, the EU Council Working Party on agricultural questions gathered to respond to the Commission’s concerns.

What is now a draft might well become the official EU Council position by the end of 2020, which would not only undermine the European Green Deal, but would be a devastating blow to biodiversity and EU environmental achievements.  

Large-scale projects in the Netherlands and the UK have shown that conventional farmers who developed IPM techniques could reduce use of pesticides by 90%, while yields were maintained or even increased. Using rotations, resistant varieties, undersowing, intercropping and maintenance of non-crop vegetation for the protection and enhancement of biodiversity,  while only applying chemical control as a last resort, is already happening; and managing pests instead of killing them is the way forward for EU farmers. We also know, thanks to widespread research that over time, alternative farming represents economical advantages and improves soil health.

PAN Europe and other civil society members are calling on the German EU Presidency to recognize its obligation to assure coherence with EU policy and legislation and therefore:

  • Embrace the 50% reduction target in pesticides use, recognise the responsibility of pesticide-intensive farming in the EU for the collapse of biodiversity, and act upon the European Commission’s conclusions that Integrated Pest Management is still not implemented and continues to be the most underused solution, and is a widespread problem within Member States, 
  • Engage in policy actions – including withdrawal of the CAP,
  • Improve the scientific quality and objectivity of the assessment and  establish an independence policy throughout the authorisation process of  active substances, 
  • Stop producing EU banned pesticides for export to other countries, 
  • Stop importing food produced with the use of pesticides that have been banned in the EU.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen the devastating human and economical impacts of ignoring scientific warnings. The EU cannot afford another crisis of this scale, especially when most of society and our institutions want to “build back better”, and when alternative solutions already exist. As the EU is still struggling with the pandemic, Member States and the German EU Presidency must embrace long term and coherent reduction in pesticide use and the full uptake of Integrated Pests Management and agroecological practices as a central pillar of Europe’s ambitions with regard to the protection of the humans and the environment, water and biodiversity.

This would send a clear and unmistakable signal that the Council is on board the European Green Deal.

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PAN Europe gratefully acknowledges the financial support from the European Union, European Commission, DG Environment, LIFE programme. Sole responsibility for this publication lies with the authors and the funders are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained herein.