Farm to Fork: New rules to reduce the risk and use of pesticides in the EU

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you in association with the European Commission.


What has been proposed today and what are the next steps?

The Commission has proposed new rules to reduce the use and risk of pesticides in the EU, delivering on the Farm to Fork Strategy objective of a fair, healthy and environmentally respectful food system. 

They introduce:

  • Legally binding targets: binding EU-level targets to reduce by 50% the use and risk of chemical pesticides and the use of the more hazardous pesticides by 2030. Member States will have to set their own reduction targets within clearly defined parameters as well as their own strategies to ensure that the EU wide target is achieved collectively.
  • Strict new rules to enforce environmentally friendly pest control: a comprehensive new enforcement framework to ensure that all farmers practice Integrated Pest Management ‘IPM’, in which all alternative methods of pest control are considered first, before chemical pesticides can be used as a last resort measure.
  • A ban on the use of all pesticides in sensitive areas: the use of all pesticides is prohibited in sensitive areas (and within 3 metres of these areas), such as public parks or gardens, playgrounds, recreation or sports grounds, public paths, as well as ecologically sensitive areas
  • Exceptional EU support: Farmers will be supported by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in this transition: for 5 years, Member States can use the CAP to cover the costs of the new requirements for farmers.

The new rules will be laid down in a Regulation, which is directly binding on all Member States.

Why are you proposing these new rules?

These rules translate our commitment to halt biodiversity loss in Europe into action, to protect health, to help build sustainable food systems in line with the European Green Deal and to ensure lasting food security. They are a recognition that tackling climate and environmental-related challenges is this generation’s defining task.

Scientists and citizens are increasingly concerned about the use of pesticides and the build-up of their residues and metabolites in the environment. In the final report of the Conference on the Future of Europe citizens specifically requested to address the use and risk of pesticides.

The existing rules on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD)have proven to be too weak and have been unevenly implemented. The recent SUD evaluation, as well as conclusions of Reports from the Court of Auditors and the European Parliament, showed that there was insufficient progress in reducing the risks and impacts of pesticide use on human health and the environment. They also noted insufficient progress in promoting the use of Integrated Pest Management and alternative approaches or techniques, such as non-chemical alternatives to pesticides, in part, because already now chemical pesticides can harm human health and continue to contribute to biodiversity decline in agricultural areas, contaminate the air, the water and the wider environment:

  • There are major risks to the health of citizens linked to the use of chemical pesticides, especially for those persons using them but also for vulnerable groups and children. Pesticides can cause both acute and long-term health impacts. Chemical pesticides can have dermatological, gastrointestinal, neurological, carcinogenic, respiratory, reproductive, and endocrine effects. High occupational, accidental, or intentional exposure to pesticides can result in hospitalisation and death. Already in 1990, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that about one million cases of unintentional pesticide poisonings occur annually, leading to approximately 20,000 deaths. A recent review estimates that about 385 million cases of unintentional acute pesticide poisonings occur annually world-wide including around 11,000 fatalities.
  • Each year between 2013 and 2019, pesticides were detected above their effect threshold at between 13 to 30% of all surface water monitoring sites of European rivers and lakes.

In agricultural areas, the use of some chemical pesticides contribute to the decline of pollinators which are necessary to feed a growing world population. 75% of global food crop types rely on animal pollination and 50% of land in the EU cultivated with crops dependent on pollinators already faces a pollination deficit. In the EU, up to almost €15 billion of the EU’s annual agricultural output is directly attributed to insect pollinators. 10% of bee and butterfly species in Europe are on the verge of extinction, and 33% of them are in decline.

Reducing our dependence on chemical pesticides is therefore a key part of the process of building more resilient, sustainable food systems for 2030 and beyond. In case of inaction, the outlook for all environmental indicators is bleak with further declines in biodiversity according to reports by the European Environment Agency, the EU Ecosystems Assessment and researchers. The EU Group of Chief Scientific Advisers already concluded in 2020 that, although the EU food system has achieved high levels of food security, food safety and a wide consumer choice, it is not sustainable with respect to environmental, economic and social aspects. Continuing ‘business as usual’ will significantly endanger natural resources, our health, the climate, and the economy.

This does not mean that pesticides are not needed.  There are cases where satisfactory pest control can only be achieved in commercial food production through the use of chemical pesticides. However, chemical pesticides should be used only as a last resort. This is the key principle of Integrated Pest Management which will be better implemented  by this proposal. Climate change will also accelerate the spread of pests and lead to the emergence of new pests. The new rules will reduce the use of chemical pesticides while at the same time continue ensuring that they are available when all other control tools have been exhausted.

Will using less pesticides harm food security?

On the contrary. The aim of the Farm to Fork Strategy, where the target to reduce chemical pesticide use was first announced, steers the transition to more sustainable farming practices. By reducing pesticides, we protect biodiversity and the health of our citizens, nature and pollinators. These are indispensable to maintain food production and security in the long term. Continued declines in biodiversity, ecosystem services and pollinator species, as we are already witnessing now, pose direct threats to food security.

There are numerous examples and studies showing that farmers can reduce pesticide use and save money without jeopardising crop yields or quality. Precision farming techniques such as modifying the flow rate from spraying nozzles in vineyards for example has allowed to use 58% less pesticide spray volume compared to constant rate applications. Using spraying nozzles of varying flow and weed sensors allowed average herbicide savings of 22.8% and 27.9% in cereals and peas respectively. The reduction in herbicides applied in the EU when using such variable rate pesticide application technology has been estimated at up to 30,000 tonnes. Another study commissioned by the European Parliament showed that existing precision agriculture can contribute a 10-20% reduction in pesticide use without affecting yields or incurring additional costs.

As a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as prolonged droughts and climate impacts in other areas of the world, there currently are risks to global food security. The Commission has already presented in March this year, a range of short-term and medium-term actions to enhance global food security and to support farmers and consumers in the EU in light of rising food prices and input costs, such as energy and fertilisers. The surge in global commodity prices, exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, highlights again the need for EU agriculture and food supply chains to become more resilient and sustainable, in line with the Farm to Fork strategy.

The changes introduced by the new rules will be gradual, therefore minimising any impact on food security. Moreover, for 5 years, Member States can use the Common Agricultural Policy to cover the costs of the new requirements for farmers. This can compensate for any additional costs and prevent price increases in food.

What are the targets to reduce the use of pesticides and how will they be achieved?

The new rules set out binding EU-level targets to reduce the use and risk of chemical pesticides and to reduce the use of the more hazardous pesticides by 50%. By doing so, it translates in tangible action the commitments laid down in the Farm to Fork Strategy.

The new rules stipulate that Member State must adopt binding targets to help meet the overall EU target. When setting these national targets, Member States have the flexibility to take into account their national situation, including historical progress and the intensity of pesticide use. This must be done within the parameters of a legally defined mathematical formula.  While allowing for the national situation to steer target setting, in no case may the national target be lower than 35%, to ensure all Member States reduce the use of pesticides. After reviewing the Member State targets, the Commission may recommend Member States to establish more ambitious targets in certain cases. The Commission may also take further measures in case the national targets are deemed insufficient to reach the 50% reduction collectively at EU level by 2030. Each year, the Commission will publish trends towards meeting the EU’s 2030 reduction targets.

Progress towards reaching the targets can be achieved by making use of a range of actions which will help reducing the use of chemical pesticides:

  • Removing more hazardous pesticides from the market;
  • Development and more widespread use of alternative pest control techniques in line with Integrated Pest Management, including in particular biological pesticides such as micro-organisms;
  • Support from CAP for investments, advice as well as through area payments
  • Increase in organic farming;
  • Precision agriculture and use of new technologies.

How does the Commission calculate the reduction in the use and risk of pesticides? And the more hazardous pesticides?

The use and risk of chemical pesticides will be measured on a yearly basis using data on the sales of plant protection products (PPPs) reported by Members States to the Commission.

The baseline for the calculation of the 50% reduction will be the average sales of 2015, 2016 and 2017, the three most recent years for which data were available at the announcement of the Farm to Fork Strategy

All active substances placed on the market in the form of PPPs are allocated to one of four groups and a weighting allocated to each of the groups – higher weightings are given to more hazardous groups[1].

The weightings are intended to encourage the use of PPPs containing low-risk active substances (many of which are non-chemical substances) and to discourage the use of PPPs containing more hazardous substances (in particular, non-approved substances used via time-limited nationally approved emergency authorisations).

The use of more hazardous pesticides will also be measured using data on the sales of plant protection products (PPPs) reported by Member States to the Commission. However, in this case no weightings are necessary, as all are in the same group.

Building on the recently reached provisional agreement on the new rules on agricultural statistics (SAIO), the Commission will evaluate the current methodology and may put forward a new one.

Example calculation for determining reduction in the use and risk of chemical pesticides: In 2015, 2016 and 2017, the average annual sales of pesticides in a Member State was 14000kg, comprising: 4000kg of low-risk pesticides, 8000kg of normal pesticides and 2000 kg of more hazardous pesticides.   Applying the weightings of 1, 8 and 16 to each category gives 4000kg x 1 + 8000kg x 8 + 2000kg x 16 = 100000/100 = 1000 In 2030, total sales of pesticides in this MS will be 10500kg, comprising; 6000kg of low-risk pesticides, 3500kg of normal pesticides and 1000kg of more hazardous pesticides. Applying the weightings of 1, 8 and 16 to each category gives 6000kg x 1 + 3500kg x 8 + 1000kg x 16 = 50000/100 = 500 Example calculation for determining reduction in the use of more hazardous pesticides: In 2015, 2016 and 2017, the average annual sales of more hazardous pesticides was 2000kg In 2030, sales of more hazardous pesticides in this Member State will be 1000kg Conclusion: This Member State has achieved a 50% reduction in both the use and risk of chemical pesticides and the use of more hazardous pesticides in line with the Farm to Fork pesticide reduction targets

How will you support farmers?

The EU will respond to the urgent need to change the course on pesticides and support farmers in their actions to do so. Member States will be able to use the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to cover the costs of any requirements stemming from the new rules for farmers, including compulsory farming practices imposed under the crop-specific rules for Integrated Pest Management. This can compensate for any additional costs and prevent price increases in food. The proposal introduces this exceptional measure for the first 5 years as the Commission recognises the need to financially support farmers and other users through their transition toward a sustainable use of pesticides.

The new rules will also allow Member States to financially support farming practices that require the sustainable use of pesticides through CAP strategic plans. We have a total of €261 billion in funding under the CAP Strategic Plans for the 2023-2027 period, part of which will be used to support sustainable farming practices beneficial to the environment.  In particular and under the new CAP, Member States can use:

  • eco-schemes (foreseen allocation of at least € 48.5 billion 2023-2027); and
  • rural development environment-climate management interventions (foreseen allocation of at least € 21.1 billion 2023-2027)

The new CAP may also fund investments in machinery equipment and risk management tools, and it may offer technical knowledge building support such as training and knowledge exchange. 

Through the CAP’s farm advisory services, Member States also have to offer advice to farmers on the sustainable use of pesticides, innovation, digital technologies, and sustainable management of nutrients.

The Commission, under various mechanisms, provides extensive funding to develop ‘more sustainable plant protection solutions,’ including on the issue of substitutes for the more hazardous pesticides.

Member States must explain in their CAP strategic plans how they will use CAP instruments to reduce the use of pesticides and how the CAP will work in synergy with other relevant EU policies, including the legislation on sustainable use of pesticides.

Will food prices increase?

Our food production systems need to reduce their negative impact on climate change and biodiversity loss. The costs of inaction hugely outweigh the costs related to the transition towards sustainable food systems. The new rules will ensure that farmers and consumers can benefit from sustainable food systems and that our long-term food security is safeguarded.

As the Commission proposal will not enter into force immediately, there will be no impact on prices, on farmers or other users in the next couple of years. The Commission nevertheless encourages Member States to allocate sufficient funding in the national CAP Plans.

Under the new rules and as an exceptional measure, CAP funding may indeed be used to finance the costs of farmers related to the implementation of the new requirements, including compulsory farming practices imposed under the crop-specific rules for integrated pest management. The use of new technologies such as pest-resistant crop varieties, supports and mitigating actions will also help reduce costs and ensure a more sustainable and more performing agricultural model. This can compensate for any additional costs and prevent price increases in food. In addition, the changes introduced by the new rules will be gradual, therefore minimising any negative impact on food production and prices.

In addition, to show how to take things forward, the Commission has published a separate Communication on safeguarding food security and the resilience of the food system in March 2022.

Science shows that collapse of pollinators will lead to a dramatic loss of production which would lead to huge increases in food prices. This proposal aims to prevent that from happening so that farmers can continue providing affordable food to citizens.  

What are the available alternatives to chemical pesticides?

Under the environmentally friendly Integrated Pest Management made mandatory by the new rules, prevention and sustainable alternatives must be used before turning to chemical pesticides only as a last resort. There are several important alternatives:

  • Cultural and Mechanical controls: For farmers and other users prevention through cultural controls will remain the first line of defence to protect crops from pest damage.

Cultural controls mean modifying the growing environment to favour plants and discourage or break the life cycle of some pests by methods such as crop rotations.

Mechanical and physical controls mean preventing pest damage by physical means such as barriers/nets and mechanical or hand weeding. There are promising developments, such as in the area of robotic weeders, which could make mechanical weeding more cost effective.

Plant breeding: Prevention also includesplant breeding, which can develop crop varieties resistant or tolerant to insect and fungal attack, thereby avoiding the need to use chemical insecticides and fungicides. Farmers already use resistant varieties as part of their pest management, for example with key arable crops, including cereals and root crops. Plant breeders are continuously striving to develop new and better varieties of crops, but it can take up to 10 years to develop a new variety. New breeding techniques offer the potential to speed up this development. The Commission is currently carrying out an impact assessment on the use of such new breeding techniques.

  • Biological pest control. Biological control involves the use of plant derived extracts, microorganisms and natural enemies to control pests. There is an upward trend in the use of biological controls.  Biological control is widely used in greenhouses to control pests like whitefly and aphids and the challenge is to extend its use more widely into arable farming.

Ensuring that alternatives are available on the market is a priority. This is why the Commission is updating the rules to accelerate approvals and to increase the availability of biological alternatives for farmers across the European Union[2].  Furthermore, the Commission is currently compiling information on how invertebrate microorganisms, such as insects or nematodes, which are natural enemies of plant pests, are employed in pest control activities in the different Member States. A study summarising the current situation as well as identifying possible ways for improvement will be provided by the Commission by the end of the current year.

  • Low risk chemical alternatives: Chemical pesticides include a wide range of substances with different properties, including some deemed to be low-risk.  Examples of low-risk PPPs include common items like baking soda and calcium carbonate (limestone). In some circumstances, these low-risk substances can provide satisfactory pest control. The EU has taken a range of measures to expand the range of these substances on the market.

How will research, innovation and technology be used and promoted?

Research, innovation and technology play a key role in accelerating the transition to sustainable agriculture by reducing the use and risk of chemical pesticides.

Horizon Europe will fund research and innovation actions to develop a wide range of tools for prevention, monitoring, control and management of plant pests and diseases along with risk management strategies. This includes seeking alternatives to the more hazardous pesticides.

Results from Horizon 2020 projects will be further disseminated and best practices will be promoted. Over 30 projects related to reducing the use of chemical pesticides were funded by Horizon 2020, with an investment of 160 million euro. Recently, an EU-wide network of farmers, IPM Works[3], has been set up to promote and demonstrate to other farmers cost-effective Integrated Pest Management strategies that were funded by Horizon 2020 through an investment of 6 million euro.

How will Integrated Pest Management be strengthened under the new the new rules?

At the heart of the new rules is a comprehensive framework to support the implementation and enforcement of Integrated Pest Management. Key measures include:

  • Crop-specific rules. Member States will have to ensure that crop-specific rules are in place – for crops grown on 90% of agricultural land – to turn the principles of Integrated Pest Management into objective and verifiable criteria.
  • Mandatory record keeping. Farmers and other users will have to keep electronic records of steps relating to monitoring, prevention and control of pests and diseases. Member States will offer support by clear crop-specific guidelines. With these electronic records, authorities will be able to control the implementation of Integrated Pest Management.
  • Independent advisory systems – Member States will be obliged to establish, oversee and monitor the operation of a system of independent advisors for professional users to support the implementation of Integrated Pest Management.  Farmers and other professional pesticide users will have to use the services of these independent advisors at least once a year.

How does the proposed Farm Sustainability Data Network relate to this?

The new proposal on a Farm Sustainability Data Network aims to collect reliable data on sustainability performance at farm level. This will provide farmers, farm advisors as well as policy makers with a reliable picture of the impacts of farming practices on the environment and on farmers’ incomes.

Under the proposal, the scope of data currently collected each year at farm level will be expanded to cover environmental sustainability aspects. This provides better insights into climate and environmental impacts at farm level, enabling a tracking of sustainability trends. Through secondary legislation, the Commission will establish what data can be covered and in what way, including as regards the use and risk of pesticides.

What about the rest of the world? How will we help them reduce their reliance on pesticide?

The transition towards sustainable food systems cannot be successfully achieved by the EU acting alone. For this reason, the Farm to Fork Strategy identifies a series of actions to support a global move towards sustainable food systems:

–   Using a partnership approach to support developing countries in their transition to sustainable food systems.

–   Building partnerships with third countries and promoting sustainable food systems

–   Ensuring the inclusion of ambitious sustainable food related provisions in all relevant EU bilateral agreements.

–   Promoting sustainability of food imports through appropriate labelling schemes and, when needed, by proposing regulatory and non-regulatory measures.

–   Establishing a general policy framework on food systems’ sustainability, combined with labelling or other incentives, to gradually raise sustainability standards so it becomes the norm for all products placed on the EU market.

–   Promoting sustainable food systems during all relevant international events (such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity or the UN Summit on Food Systems).

Today, the Commission also announced its intention to lower maximum residue levels to zero for two active substances, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. These substances are banned in the EU as they kill pollinators. However, food products treated with these substances can currently still be imported into the EU. For the first time ever, the Commission will take into account environmental impacts of global nature, such as the decline of pollinators, also for imported products, while fully respecting WTO standards and obligations. A consultation with Member States and third countries will be launched soon.

How will the EU prevent environmental problems associated with food production from shifting to other parts of the world?

Environmental criteria have been part of pesticide authorisation processes for decades. As announced in the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Commission will take into account environmental considerations when deciding on maximum residue levels of pesticides in foods that are no longer allowed in the EU due to unacceptable impacts on the environment. The focus will be on environmental matters of global concern, such as the worldwide decline of pollinators and the accumulation in the environment of persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic substances. This approach will apply also to food produced outside the EU, as imported products must meet the EU requirements to be placed on the market in the EU, including compliance with the maximum residue levels for pesticides..

Concretely, a draft Regulation lowering the existing maximum residue levels for thiamethoxam and clothianidin, two substances belonging to the group of neonicotinoids (known to contribute significantly to the worldwide decline of pollinators), is under preparation. These substances are no longer approved in the EU. When adopted, imported food containing measurable residues of these two substances can – after certain transitional periods – no longer be marketed in the EU.

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