Pesticides: To do nothing is not an option

Last week was a terrible week for health, environment, reason and democracy. A majority in the EU Parliament buried the regulation that should have halved the use of pesticides in Europe and prohibited their use in our children's playgrounds and schools. On top of that, EU Member States and the Commission gave a green light for another 10 years of destructive glyphosate use. Politicians and public servants did not listen to thousands of scientists and ignored two European Citizens Initiatives that both collected over a million support votes. They also ignored the will of a vast majority of citizens who expressed their concerns about pesticide use in EU Barometers and in a recent IPSOS poll. Politicians chose not to address the very urgent biodiversity crisis. They ignored the enormous pile of evidence of harm done by pesticides to health and the environment. Instead of showing leadership towards a more positive future, they chose to stick their head in the sand and do nothing. They ignore their responsibility to protect the well-being and the sustainability of our societies, ignore the problems and endanger the future of their children, grandchildren and the generations to come.


Not in the interest of farmers

The choice is not in the interests of farmers. We know more and more about the very harmful long term effects of these toxic substances they, their families and their neighbours are exposed to. Parkinson's disease is on the rise and farmers are the first victims. Too long have they been lied to by the pesticide producers and their many advisors, as well as their own representative organisations. The industry and its shareholders make billions of profits selling products they know are much more harmful than they admit. The very same industry orchestrated the campaign to convince the politicians to do nothing to reduce pesticides. For every bit of pesticide reduction cuts a bit of their profits, paid by public subsidies and farmers who are told that there are no alternatives. Farmers could have a much more profitable business if they could cut the costs for external inputs and if they would be rewarded a fair price for a healthy product.


Not in the interest of consumers

The choice not to reduce pesticides is also not in the interest of consumers. They eat the products that are contaminated with a cocktail of pesticides. Each one of them may be below the regulatory limit, but the available evidence on the cocktail effect of all these chemicals combined is highly worrying but regulators refuse to better protect citizens against toxic mixtures. A large majority of citizens showed their concern about pesticides in their food, both in EU Barometers and in a recent IPSOS pesticide poll. 

Consumers and politicians are often threatened by agroindustry with higher food prices if pesticides are reduced. This scaremongering message is drawn every time a pesticide is banned: bee-toxic neonicotinoids, brain-damaging chlorpyrifos…but after every ban yields remain the same and prices do not go up. There are many ways to ensure healthy food for a fair price. We tend to forget that the real price of food is many times higher. The cost to remove pesticide contamination from our drinking water and the cost for healthcare to treat diseases caused by exposure to pesticides of rural citizens, and by the ingestion of unhealthy food are huge. The products produced with pesticides are extremely subsidised because society pays for all the damage this way of farming is causing. They would be way more expensive than organic products if the real costs would be accounted for.

Furthermore, farming in the EU is heavily subsidised: one-third of the EU budget (55 billion euros) is dedicated to the Common Agricultural Policy. A considerable amount of this money ends up in the pockets of shareholders from pesticide companies or actors of the agrifood industry. A small amount of this money truly ends up in the pocket of those who truly feed us with healthy and organic food, such as producers of fruits and vegetables who usually have low-profit margins. A redistribution of the CAP money towards farmers who engage in reducing pesticide use, and towards those who really feed the population, instead of producing commodities, would ensure a fair price for both citizens and farmers.


Not in the interest of our common future

The choice not to reduce pesticides harms our common future. We stand in the middle of a biodiversity crisis that is even further advanced than the climate crisis. Without biodiversity and healthy soils, we cannot produce food in the long run, so food security is at stake. Most of EU agriculture is locked up in a deadend system. Pesticides kill biodiversity, kill soil health, and pollute our water. They reduce the potential of the soil to store carbon and retain water, both essential in dry and in very wet periods. This form of agriculture is not climate resilient at all. The real costs of this disaster only start to show up. Six thousand scientists urged politicians to take action to restore nature and reduce pesticide use. The way forward is to move from the polluting chemical era to a new era of healthy food production without contamination and with restoration of soil fertility and biodiversity while storing carbon in the soil. That is where all efforts should go, where all public money for farmers' subsidies and research should be invested in.

The conservatives in the EPP fraction in the European Parliament have brought this political crisis, with the support of liberals and populist parties. They acted in a short-sighted manner and tried to save their political skin by being more populist than the populists. They served the interests of the chemical industry very well. But they do not serve the interest of the farmers they pretend to protect and not the interests of citizens.


To do nothing is not an option

To ignore the science and the will of the population while letting the interests of industry and their shareholders prevail is a dangerous move. It fosters the discredit of the whole political system. Ignoring the real problems and scapegoating groups in society like populist parties do is dangerously undemocratic. Giving in to this only serves the vested interests of the industry instead of solving problems and paves the way towards a grim and unhealthy future. We think politicians can and should do much better.

© Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe), Rue de la Pacification 67, 1000, Brussels, Belgium, Tel. +32 2 318 62 55

Pesticide Action Network Europe (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.