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Alice Bernard

6th October 2021

Agriculture
Chemicals
EU

Pesticides in agriculture – what we don’t know won’t hurt us?

What we don’t know

Currently, in Europe, no one has a clear picture of how much, how often, where and which pesticides are used in food production. Thousands of tonnes of pesticides are sold in the EU every year, but then we lose track of them. This blind spot means trouble for public health and the environment.

Farmers have to keep records on their pesticides use, but public authorities do not systematically collect them. This creates a blind spot. For example, the organisation responsible for ensuring drinking water safety in a given area needs to know how much of a given product and its active ingredient have been used in that area over the last year, but they cannot – unless they want to take a costly and lengthy legal route.

Environmental organisations and even residents living near farms have no access to such data either – unless they file well-argued requests for access to information to the local authorities and have the time and the means to go to court.

This is true for pesticides, but it is also true for the other chemicals that are used extensively in agriculture, such as biocides and veterinary products. Biocides are defined in the law as chemicals that are used with ‘the intention of destroying, deterring, rendering harmless, preventing the action of, or otherwise exerting a controlling effect on, any harmful organism by any means other than mere physical or mechanical action”. In other words, they are a poison, just like pesticides, and they can contain the same toxic active ingredients.

But regardless, there is currently no systematic tracking of the use of pesticides and biocides.

Why is it a problem?

Environmental organisations and residents are deprived of their right to know. Drinking water management organisations have to do without data that is key to their work. Enforcement authorities are left blind. But not mapping pesticide use also has wider consequences.

Pesticides are allowed in the EU only after they receive the green light from several public authorities at EU and national level. Their approval is based on scientific assessments of the risks to human health and the environment. These are themselves based on data but also on a few assumptions, especially on how the pesticides will likely be used in “realistic conditions”.

But the only way to ensure that the “realistic conditions” foreseen are indeed realistic is to keep track of what is actually used, when, where and in which quantities. That is why the law already requires farmers to keep such records.

Because this precise data is not collected, nor published, it’s a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.

The first ones to lose are the agricultural workers on the front line. Real-life exposure to pesticides could have significant consequences for agricultural workers’ health – but no one, not even the public authorities that need to have a full picture of the effects of pesticides, have the data to identify trends.

The rural environment – which covers the vast majority of the EU territory – is also impacted. Bees, birds, and other organisms suffer from the pesticides and biocides that end up on and in the plants, in the air, in water and soil. While we know that decades of pesticide use is a factor in the substantial decline in insect populations in Europe and in the related decline in insect-feeding birds, it is difficult to know to what extent and which pesticides in particular are key factors, when we don’t know which ones are used where and how.

Finally, if the public is kept in the dark about farmers’ pesticide use, the farming sector loses because they don’t have any way to prove that they are making efforts and progress. Maybe they have reduced their consumption of the most hazardous pesticides or have put in place non-chemical solutions for certain crops – either way, this remains hidden. And without transparency, the public can only assume the worst.

The only winner in this situation is the chemicals industry – which can continue to sell their products and carelessly lose track of them leaving it to local communities to deal with the consequences.

Can this be fixed?

Yes, absolutely. In fact, the European Commission has recognised the damages caused by this blind spot and made an ambitious proposal to reform the collection and publication of agricultural statistics in early 2021. We think the proposal has some weaknesses that can be fixed, but only if the European Parliament steps up and national agriculture ministries do not sabotage it.

Together with 20 environmental and health organisations and the organic farming association IFOAM, we have made detailed recommendations to the Members of the European Parliament, who will be voting on this matter on 11 October. You can read them here.

It’s clear that the status quo cannot continue – it’s in everyone’s best interest to have more transparency on pesticides use.

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