Europe reconsiders pesticide ban as global food crisis looms

The agriculture ministers have warned that a significant reduction in the use of pesticides in the European Union could affect crop yields during a very uncertain period.

An ambitious goal offers by the European Commission to halve the use of pesticides by 2030 was criticized by Member States at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council (Agrifish) held recently in Brussels.

Controlling a disease without synthetic molecules can be difficult, but it is necessary.– Gennaro Sicolo, President, Italia Olivicola

During the meeting, the ministers underlined the need for viable and sustainable alternatives to chemical pesticides before setting mandatory reduction targets.

They added that the new regulations should also take into account differences in geography, climate and starting points in different Member States” before imposing restrictions.

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They further pointed out that sustainability should not be sought at the expense of food security or the competitiveness of EU agriculture, especially in the current context of Russian aggression against Ukraine.”

Emerging divisions between the 27 agriculture ministers are likely to have a significant impact on the new regulations being drawn up by the European Commission. The aim of the regulation is to reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture.

The proposed regulations call on governments to set national reduction targets and apply environmentally sound pest management through integrated pest management practices with pesticides used as a measure of last resort.

The rules also stipulate a complete ban on the use of pesticides in parks, playgrounds, schools and environmentally sensitive areas.

Finally, the proposed rules allow governments to use Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funds to cover farmers’ costs as they transition to other forms of pest control.

The strongest opposition to the proposed regulations came from Spain, Portugal, Malta, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria and Hungary.

Spain’s agriculture minister has warned that banning pesticides in environmentally sensitive areas could allow them to become breeding grounds for pests. The Slovenian minister added that farmers in these areas would be significantly disadvantaged due to the bans.

However, Stella Kyriakides, the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, defended the proposal and said that food security and long-term resilience require a change in direction regarding the use of pesticides.

We don’t ban the use of pesticides,” she said. The range of organic and low-risk alternatives is gradually expanding on the market, with more approvals and more simplified rules, to help farmers transition.

The continued use of research, innovation and new technologies will also support the transition,” she added. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means we have to adapt to new realities. But we can’t let that get in the way of our sustainability journey.

A further reduction in pesticide use will also affect olive growers, many of whom opposed the October 2021 ban on the use of dimethoate.

The chemical is widely considered the only effective line of defense against olive fruit fly in olive groves. Some farmers had lamented that the ban was implemented in the absence of viable alternative insect control strategies.

Over the years, synthetic active substances have nurtured an approach to plant protection that is more focused on the treatment of pathologies and less on prevention, due to the availability on the market of pesticides such as dimethoate,” said Gennaro Sicolo, president of Italia Olivicola, an association of producers, told Olive Oil Times.

Controlling a disease without synthetic molecules can be difficult, but it is necessary,” he added. The whole production process must take place taking into account the protection of the environment and its natural resources.

Sicolo argues that olive growers should take a more preventative approach to the spread of pests.

This can trigger a virtuous cycle where plant well-being is at the center, in harmony with the soil and all the environment it inhabits,” he said. We need to rebuild our [pest] control strategies.

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The 2021 annual report of the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) confirmed that the use of pesticides in olive production is quite low in Europe.

The majority of samples – 96% out of 100,000 – analyzed by EFSA showed the presence of chemicals to be well below the legal limit. Additionally, 57% of all samples did not contain quantifiable residue levels.

An organic approach to farming unfortunately does not just depend on olive growers,” Sicolo said. A broader approach can and should come from other areas where synthetics are widely used. Olive growing can do its part even in the face of rising costs. »

According to the European Federation of Food, Agriculture, Tourism and Trade (EFFAT), the proposed regulation is a step forward but does not take into account the specific impacts of pesticide use, such as those on workers’ health.

The danger of pesticides in Europe is real,” said Kristjan Bragason, Secretary General of EFFAT. Exposure to pesticides and agrochemicals is one of the major risks facing agricultural workers, although still largely underestimated. Protecting worker health and safety means fighting for truly sustainable agriculture.

Natalija Svrtan, an activist for pesticide-free agriculture, told Olive Oil Times that reversing 80 years of pesticide damage to soil, biodiversity and human health would be a long process.

We cannot solve the problem overnight, by applying a simple solution,” she said. Substantial changes must be made to our food production systems, and it must be done without delay.

Biodiversity and healthy soils are the basic inputs we need for the production of any type of food, and agroecology is the solution to preserve it,” Svrtan added. This is demonstrated by studies as well as by the growing number of organic growers, who successfully apply integrated pest management.

According to Svrtan, integrated pest management includes several techniques such as intercropping, under-seeding, multi-cropping, crop rotation, fallowing of fields and constant monitoring for pest outbreaks.

When prevention methods alone are not enough, preference is given to non-chemical alternatives, such as biological pest control, physical trapping and mechanical weeding,” she said.

Svrtan added that old farming practices must be replaced with new ones to restore the natural balance of the man-made landscapes.

Many old olive trees have been replaced with new cultivars prone to disease and pest attacks,” she said. Any interference with the natural order, with natural processes, will lead to creating more problems than it solves.

We need to be wise and live in harmony with nature, instead of fighting it, as we are currently doing, using pesticides and mineral fertilizers,” Svrtan added. Even with new cultivars, techniques such as pest monitoring, pest traps, mechanical weeding methods, and the use of repellents can at least reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

The EU Agrifish Council ended with a document signed by 12 member states calling on the EU to promote sustainability and a new approach to pesticides globally.

Should such a global transition to sustainability fail, the document states, the deployment of the Green Deal and its strategies could cause environmental loss and lower yields in European agriculture.

The new pesticide rules will need to be approved by both the European Council and the European Parliament to come into force.

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