EESC backs initiatives to reduce pesticide risks, while stressing the need to find alternative cost-effective solutions

The EU has some of the strongest regulations in the world on the use of plant protection products (PPPs – pesticides) and other chemicals in agriculture. However, there is still room for improvement to achieve greater regulatory convergence to reduce the risks of using PPPs, and to guarantee a healthy and safe food supply for an ever-growing world population.

As a contribution to the European Commission's evaluation of Directive 2009/128/EC  on the sustainable use of pesticides, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has adopted an information report on this topic, at its April plenary session.

The Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD), adopted in 2009, was aimed at reducing the risks and impacts of pesticide use on human health and the environment. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) alongside organic farming, is one of the key elements of the directive, as it includes actions such as crop rotation, pest surveillance and the application of non-chemical pest control methods and other lower-risk pesticides.

More than 10 years after its implementation, it is critical to evaluate whether the Directive is fit for purpose.

The Commission estimates that the evaluation will be concluded in the second quarter of 2021, the impact assessment in the fourth quarter of 2021 and finally, the legislative proposal by the end of the first quarter of 2022.

The evaluation contribution presented by the EESC in this information report was based primarily on the views and opinions of civil society organisations gathered during fact-finding trips to a number of EU Member States (Bulgaria, Croatia, Spain, Ireland and Sweden), and on the responses to the online questionnaire developed for this purpose.

The EESC information report acknowledged that, despite the fact that Member States have embarked on the transposition and implementation of the SUD from different starting points, it has broadly speaking proven to be effective in achieving more efficient and sustainable use and in reducing the risk inherent in the use of pesticides.

While significant progress has been made on the handling and treatment of pesticides since the directive's implementation, the lack of adequate knowledge remains the main obstacle to the optimal use of PPPs. In particular, there remains a widespread failure to comply with the requirement for mandatory end-user training. In this respect, the EESC calls for the establishment of specific measures to ensure that pesticides can only be used by appropriately trained people.

Another shortcoming of the Directive is the lack of a monitoring system that is efficient enough to make it possible to know whether EU rules have promoted greater implementation of IPM systems. Monitoring and enforcement of the law is also considered to be a weakness of the SUD, as well as the absence of effective penalties for Member States that do not comply with the rules.

Although European farmers remain strongly committed to moving towards more sustainable agricultural practices, there is also broad consensus on the lack of alternative solutions and new technologies that are sufficiently cost-effective to ensure ideal crop maintenance. The lack of a minimum profitability for their products, coupled with high production costs that are difficult to bear for farmers, is a significant driver for farmers to use more PPPs.

By way of example, 81% of the responses to the EESC survey pointed to financial pressure as the main factor encouraging farmers to use pesticides.

Principle of reciprocity for agri-food products from third countries

There are also serious concerns regarding the policy of importing food from third countries, which has been treated with pesticides that are not authorised on the European single market.

This is happening at the same time as the EU is eliminating the use of certain active substances from the market, while not keeping pace with the development of alternative solutions, which puts farmers at an even more competitive disadvantage in the production of their agricultural products.

Therefore, special attention should be paid to EU trade policy with third countries in order to prevent trade agreements from undermining the European model of family farming and thus safeguarding the European agri-food model, which remains in the vanguard of food safety and quality standards, stressed José Manuel Roche Ramo, rapporteur for the EESC information report. 

It is important to continue demonstrating commitment to the model of sustainable European agriculture, without making farmers less competitive. This means strengthening controls and monitoring imports from third countries, and further European harmonisation in customs matters, he concluded.

Synergies between all EU policies concerning sustainable food production

Nevertheless, the surveys and missions carried out for this report reveal a broad consensus on the importance of the CAP and its ability to create synergies with other policies and actions related to sustainability goals.

In order to achieve a cleaner and more sustainable Europe, we need to move towards greater harmonisation between the different EU policies and legislation: the CAP, the SUD, the Biodiversity Strategy, the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy. We need a holistic and ambitious approach in order to create a legislative framework enabling us to deal with the use of pesticides in a coherent, consistent and scientific way, emphasised Mr Roche Ramo.  

There is always room for improvement. The medium- to long-term stance for food policy, agriculture and food safety is characterised by the emergence of new challenges and threats but also new opportunities. Issues such as the sustainability and competitiveness of the food system, farmers' difficulty in covering their production costs, climate change impact and action, the ageing of the population, the lack of generational renewal, the depopulation of rural areas, precision farming and digitalisation will certainly influence the future of agriculture and the way food is produced and consumed.

The EU must therefore find a way of adopting a holistic approach to the role of pesticides, involving the entire agri-food system and consumers in a balanced way, with the ultimate aim of continuing to ensure a healthy and safe food supply for an ever-growing world population.