Pesticides chief: 'We were not really listening to societal concerns'

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After years of trying to persuade consumers that their products present no health or environmental risk, the pesticides industry has now recognised its failure to address wider society concerns. Friedhelm Schmider of industry group ECPA promises "a huge change of mindset" in engaging with consumers and farmers.

Friedhelm Schmider is director general of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA). He was speaking to EurActiv's editor Frédéric Simon.

​Read a related news article here.

Friedhelm Schmider is director general of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA). He was speaking to EurActiv's editor Frédéric Simon.

​Read a related news article here.

ECPA recently announced a change of direction in the way it communicates about society concerns regarding pesticides. Why is that?

We got aware that our communication was based on facts and figures – something we are so proud of – but not really listening to societal concerns. And that was big, big give. And learning that curve to listen what the society concerns are and responding to them and talking with the same language and not with the scientific language is a major change.

And this has big consequences. If you would like to listen and to respond, then of course you have to open, invite people to criticise you, responding and listening carefully.

When I talk about a huge change of mindset, this means we learn to say: 'Yes, we consider carefully, we are responding and we are listening'. And we might not always agree but the point is to say we consider it very very carefully.

At the last agriculture show in France, farmers' organisations have staged a demonstration to protest against some of their members who had been intoxicated by pesticide vapours, leading to serious health problems. What are your answers to the concerns expressed by those farmers?

Let me put this in two ways. One is more driven by research and innovation, and of course we are looking all the time for new innovative products. That is one part. But it’s not easy to get that because it takes 10 years to develop new active ingredients.

The other part is more important – because it can act immediately – and that is to educate and help the farmer to use the pesticides properly. Being really careful with it because we have products which have to be biologically active and the consequence is that they have some side-effects. And you have to manage it properly with education programmes, with training programmes looking at the problem and responding to it.

Have you identified specific regions or countries where farmers were not well trained in how to handle the products they were using?

We have been running a 'safe-use initiative' in some pilot countries for over 15 years, something like that. But it was more driven to countries where there might be specific problems.

Our new intention is to go to all countries, in all of Europe and look for the training needs, not looking for pilot countries or specific crops but all countries and all crops.

Have you identified a lack of training on how the pesticides are used by the farmers - generally speaking?

I have an example in Spain where the farmers were not wearing any protective clothing. It seemed it was just a question of style. Because one started it, then the others followed and it was just a style.

Scientifically, sometimes you have regulation where – because it is a chemical – the authorities ask for protective clothing, like when using a high-toxic compound. Even a normal rainwear will help, but if you have to wear in a hot climate condition a plastic clothing in which you are sweating like hell, you will not do it.

That’s a part where we need a regulation so that the farmers can get protected and get to wear their protective clothing. Normal rainwear is in most cases good enough to protect the farmers. But they have to wear it.

Can you give a rough estimate how many farmers are actually not following the guidelines on how to use protective clothing?

I cannot provide you a precise percentage. It depends really much on the crop and the region.

Moving on to the consumer side, how does ECPA plan to address health concerns, for example, related to residual amounts of pesticides that can be found in some fruit and vegetables?

I would like to thank you for this question. I could easily answer scientifically because the level of residue there cannot be a concern – it is far too low to be toxicologically relevant.

But this will not satisfy the society. Of course, we don't like it when MRL [Maximum Residue Levels] are exceeded, there is no need for that to happen. So we said we would like to bring exceeding of MRLs to zero.

And so we followed the track and identified uses, for example, where farmers were applying sometimes at a late stage. Or at other times, they were not using the right compound at the right moment to save the crop.

Is it about the spraying techniques and how you wash the fruits and vegetables after they have been sprayed?

Let's take an example: You are a farmer, you grow strawberries, paprika, these are typical crops which are sweet, a lot of water is needed to grow them and they are very sensitive to fungi diseases. You are nearby the harvest, you harvest in five days and suddenly the fungi pressure is so high, that the crop is getting ill within 24 hours.

Now you can decide to spray a crop protection chemical to save your harvest and your income, or let your crop die and lose the income. As a farmer you would immediately say, 'Sorry, I would like to survive, I spray a crop protection chemical to save my harvest', and not think what that could mean for exceeding residues in the crop.

But there might be other ways. There might even be a case for not using a particular chemical and use another chemical because it is better suited to the harvest time – 10 days before harvest, or five days before harvest. There could also be a case for diminishing the application rate because you are only three days before harvest. There are a lot of possibilities and farmers should not hesitate to call and ask for help and advice before you treat it because there are solutions around to avoid exceeding MRLs.

So the closest you get to harvest, the more diluted the pesticides will have to be, is that right?

There are all sorts of possibilities. But I would like to avoid the impression that we have enough solutions. It’s just the opposite. Overall, farmers and growers have not enough solutions, especially for specialty crops. Because as I already mentioned, the development, the innovation is not coming so quickly and the amount of investment and money is quite high.

You mean development of alternatives to the most toxic chemicals?

That's right. But this is on the other hand a little bit of a dream because 15 to 20 years ago we had in the European Union roughly 1,000-1,500 registered active ingredients. Today, we have around 450, including the new innovations. Now that shows you immediately that there was a reduction of two-thirds. But in the meantime, only about 100 new active ingredients were invented.

So the dream to find very quickly a solution is not existing, especially with all the hurdles to put in place new active ingredients.

The EU's pesticide strategy foresees a phase-out for the most dangerous substances. How is that process going, do you feel you are on track to meet that requirement?

When you talk about the most dangerous, the most toxic active ingredients – yes they will be replaced can be replaced. That's nicely on track.

On the other hand, there are new diseases created by climate change – warmer weather conditions. And sometimes there is only one compound that is able to kill a disease and you have no other possibilities. And what we are seeing is a tremendous increase in resistance problems so you need even more active ingredients. And overall, we don't have enough active ingredients.

So resistance and new diseases will play an import important role for the productivity of agriculture in Europe tomorrow.

Are you saying that regulations have tended to diminish the number of pesticides available for farmers and that this has created problems for them?

That’s one part. The other part – developing innovative products – is like saying that you would like to go to the moon but to get there is not so easy. So depending on what innovation and research brings out, there might be a lack as well.

By the way, when you look at companies that are looking for new active ingredients, today we have five looking for new active ingredients, not more. Fifteen years back, this would have been 10, 12 or 15 and the reason is very simple. You spend €200 million  and you need roughly 10 years to get the new products. And this kind of investment, only a bigger company can afford.

What about the impact of EU regulatory pressure on pesticides sales? How do you see the demand for pesticides evolving in the coming years in Europe?

Let me give you an answer indirectly. If you have to produce food, independent of how you grow crops – organic or non-organic – you need crop protection chemicals.

And all this regulatory pressure has led to a situation where we have less active ingredients, which is totally right. But overall the demand is not declining. It is stable or even increasing because we have to produce food.

And when you look at the growing world population, we have to increase our food production by 15%. Then we have to think of how to increase productivity in Europe in a sustainable way, protecting the health of the farmers and the environment.

But we have to increase productivity. Today, we produce 35 million hectares outside of Europe for our feed and food needs. So we produce in Africa or in Asia for our food in Europe, which is called land-grabbing.

So we have to increase the land productivity but we have to do it in a sustainable way.

In France, authorities have adopted a very tough plan called 'Ecophyto 2018', which requires halving the pesticides use by 2018. With the demand staying more or less stable or even increasing, do you think that’s a realistic objective that France has set for itself? After all, this is the largest agricultural country in Europe…

Maybe this question touches a point where we cannot communicate properly about what the needs are and what is the language of society.

It’s a nice political demand. But if France would like farmers and growers to produce high quality and affordable food, it will be able to make it. And the bill at the end of the day will be paid by the end consumer.

A good example is Denmark, which adopted a pesticide-use reduction programme 20 years back. And what they’re doing now is very simple – fruits and vegetables are not in the programme, it’s just sugar beet, wheat or cereals. For sugar beet you could see a decline in herbicide use because we got new active ingredients which allowed using grams instead of kilograms per hectare. And the indicators in the last few years show very clearly that a further decline is definitely not possible or you have to give up productivity, you give up producing food.

So the alternative is either producing at home and therefore using pesticides or outsourcing production to other parts of the world…

That is exactly the point. Which is a shame because we have in Europe the highest standards in the world. And we could use our European model for increasing productivity, but in a sustainable way, and that means environment, social and the economy. These pillars should be in balance. We can do it, yes.

Have you made an evaluation of the wider economic impact of this plan in France to halve pesticide use by 2018?

In Europe, including France, we know that agriculture and the business around agriculture represents roughly 20% of GDP. So it has a tremendous effect at the end of the day on the economy.

By the way, halving pesticide use will also have a tremendous effect on nature protection as well because the landscape is no longer under agriculture production (which might be good in some corners). But overall, it will be a disaster for the landscape and for nature protection as well.

Talking about nature protection and water, what is ECPA recommending to safeguard water resources? Agriculture is after all by far the heaviest user of water…

There are several elements. First of all, I would like to make it crystal clear that we have no interest in any water being contaminated with pesticides. We don’t need that product there, they should not be there.

Sometimes you can argue that it’s not avoidable and … we did a training programme where we looked at point sources. Point sources mean where water gets contaminated at a very specific point and you can follow back the origin and find out why it happened there.

And quite often it was inadequate spraying which was the source of water contamination. So we did a big training programme in 12 pilot countries in Europe and we saw that we can reduce point sources by 70% with adequate training of the farmers and growers and having adequate equipment for them.

The other part is that we are looking at 'buffer strips'. This has to be adapted to the landscape but buffer strips help avoid residues of some crop protection chemicals contaminating surface and groundwater.

Have you done toxicological studies to assess the risk for human health of residue levels which are above the limits? What are the risks of that for people who drink that water?

Seriously, the risk for the people is zero. Because maximum residue levels are often set artificially, there is always a safety factor of 100,000 in between.

So to have a real health risk, you would have to drink a huge amount of that water every day for a whole lifetime. So the risk is not there, but it should anyway be avoided.

So if there is no risk then why worry, why have buffer zones?

That’s exactly the point that we have always argued. 'There is no risk, why should we do it?' But this is not satisfying for the public's concerns.

Others can say: 'Oh it’s a toxic chemical, it must be toxic for you as well'. But toxicity is given by the amount you take. The dose makes the toxicity, not the chemical. So there is a part where we just go back to our old argumentation, which the general public doesn't like because we see the public is concerned. So let's go do whatever we can. But we cannot do it by ourselves, we need partners as well.

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