Pesticides – questions and answers

  • Pesticides
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foodwatch wants to put an end to the use of agricultural pesticides across Europe. In our report "Locked in pesticides" we prove that this is actually possible to achieve by 2035. Below you will find answers to the most frequently asked questions about pesticides and about foodwatch’s plans.

Pesticides are chemicals  to control diseases, pests, weeds or other organisms. They are also referred to as plant protection products. They come in either liquid-form, which are sprayed on crops, or they are sprinkled on the land in the form of small granules. There are different categories of pesticides, depending on their purpose. A few well-known ones are: 

  • insecticides (these substances control insects)
  • herbicides (these substances control weeds)
  • fungicides (these substances fight diseases caused by fungi).

Pesticides are toxic substances which are made to kill something (insects, weeds or fungi). This in-built toxicity means that they pose a risk to human, animal or plant health. European and national legislation regulates the authorisation of pesticides. There are regulations governing the use of pesticides, with the aim of ensuring that consumers, the environment and users are not put at risk. Standards are set that determine how much toxic residue of each type of pesticide is allowed to remain on food. 

In practice, this does not work out well. The prolonged use of all kinds of pesticides pollutes soil and water and harms species of plants and animals that were not the target of the control. Insects suffer badly from pesticide use, which in turn affects bird populations. 

For consumers, there are dangers as well. Pesticides are approved too easily, based on risk studies provided by the industry itself. It can take a very long time before a harmful pesticide is finally removed from the market. Poisonous residues left on crops also pose a risk. The maximum limits for residues on food apply only to each toxin individually. Sometimes there are dozens of different toxins on a piece of fruit, some of which may reinforce each other in harmful effects. These cumulative effects of the poisonous cocktails play no role in the risk assessments.

Yes we can. In fact pesticides are the least effective way to control pests, diseases and weeds because without preventive measures they always come back. This is also the reason why agriculture is trapped in pesticide use. 

For growing crops without pesticides, alternative and preventive methods are available to control pests, diseases and weeds. They all revolve around utilising natural ecosystems for more resilient crops. Numerous agronomic measures are available for this purpose, complemented by technological developments. The Locked-in pesticides report explains these in detail starting on page 56.

The most important measures on land are

  1. ensuring healthy soil (regenerative soil management)
  2. selecting strong types of crops
  3. alternating crops (crop rotation)
  4. growing different types or varieties of crops at the same time
  5. creating and maintaining biodiversity, with zones with wildflowers, flower strips, hedges, tree rows and establishing habitats for birds
  6. reducing nitrogen inputs through fertilizers

The report "Locked-in pesticides" explains these measures in detail from page 56.

Stay away from monocultures!

Agriculture without pesticides requires major changes on the field. Land use will become diverse and this will require a change in design from monocultures to varied cultivation with biodiversity. These radical changes must also pay off for farmers. To achieve this, we need measures at the European and national level to make polluting agriculture more expensive and to ensure that farmers get a higher income from diverse, pesticide-free production. More on this in the answer under question “What action is needed from European and national governments?”

Not necessarily. Removing pesticides does not automatically mean more crop failures. It does mean that pests and diseases have to be prevented and controlled in alternative, natural ways, with variation in cultivation and biodiversity. (See also the answer to the question above). Moreover, the farmer must receive a fair price that includes possible risks. This includes the much more realistic risks of crop failure due to climatic factors, such as prolonged heat and drought.

That global famine would result from stopping pesticide use is an unwarranted fear often fueled by the pesticide industry and big farm lobby. There is vast overproduction of food in the world, millions of tons of food are wasted in production, processing and in supermarkets, and in addition, our land use is extremely inefficient. Most land suitable for arable farming is used to grow crops to feed animals raised for their meat and milk. EU agriculture feeds 7 billion animals annually and "only" 450 million people. So it needs to be redesigned and redistributed.

With pesticide-free we mean heading for a maximum reduction of chemical pesticides. Our ideal scenario is a combination of both preventative plant protection (by increases of diversity/heterogenicity) and natural biological control, where pesticide use is the last resort. 

Organic farming is a great advance over conventional farming, but there are still a number of problems: Contrary to what you might think, organic farming still allows the use of hazardous substances. For example, organic apples, grapes and potatoes are often treated with copper, which is a very toxic fungicide and Spinosad, a bee killing insecticide, is allowed to be used on organic vegetables and fruit.

This is not the ideal solution. foodwatch wants to end the use of pesticides which are now allowed in organic agriculture. Preventative protection measures must come first, only complemented by control options (low risk and basic substances) in the second place.

Almost every attempt to reduce pesticide use on a large scale has failed. This is because decades of pesticide use have become part of the global competition of farmers. The revenue model can no longer do without pesticides because cultivation consists of large-scale monocultures that must be as cheap as possible. There is no financial or physical space for resilient crops and biodiversity.

Politicians have shown that they only act when serious problems have become acute. In recent decades, industrial agriculture has caused many environmental and social problems, leading to a large patchwork of ad hoc legislation and policies. Each problem is addressed separately, there is often no consistency and some policies are even contradictory. However, many agricultural issues, such as pesticide use, are closely related to other issues.

In addition, persistent belief systems are imprinted in people's minds. The public thinking of citizens, agricultural economists and farmers is that food security can only be achieved through large-scale agriculture that relies on pesticides, fertilizers and genetic engineering. The industrial lobby is strong and invariably insists towards politicians that we cannot do without it. It would lead to hunger disasters. Nothing could be further from the truth: there is gigantic overproduction, food waste and inefficient land use due to the large production of animal feed. See also the answer to the question "Doesn't pesticide-free agriculture cause poorer harvests and food shortages?".

Much and far-reaching action is needed from governments to achieve resilient, sustainable agriculture without pesticide use. The approach should not simply be to write down targets arrived at through heavy industry participation, but requires a concrete EU action plan with financial measures. The plan must be holistic because it requires policy adjustments in the areas of climate, agriculture, trade, education, research, cultivation and advertising. 

Measures should aim to increase the cost of the current polluting agricultural system. This can be done by introducing pesticide taxes and carbon taxes and by increasing pesticide authorization fees. The EU should revise agricultural policy so that income goes up for farmers who convert to sustainable, pesticide-free agriculture. This can be done by making income support dependent not on land tenure but on labor. Policy should focus on supporting direct, local and regional trade. These and more measures are further explained in the Locked-in pesticides report starting on page 68.

We created a roadmap for each crop to eliminate pesticide use. The Locked-in pesticides report, starting on page 94, outlines what the future of each crop should ideally look like, what agronomic measures are needed to stop pesticide use, and what political tools can be used to do so.

For example, the cultivation of vegetables, nuts, olives and potatoes, with the right measures, could be pesticide-free in 9 years. Cereals could even be grown pesticide-free in as little as 3 years. Only vineyards and apple orchards require considerably more time, but even for these, pesticide-free cultivation could be a reality by 2035.