This article is part of our special report Agriculture.
Manufacturers have recognised their failure to address concerns over the environmental and health risks of pesticides, promising "a huge change of mindset" in engaging with society while sticking to their traditional argument that their products are safe to use.
Friedhelm Schmider, director general of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), told EURACTIV that the industry has learned from past mistakes and stood ready to address wider public concerns over safety and the environment.
"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," Schmider told EURACTIV in an interview.
"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."
This, he added, represented "a huge change of mindset" for the industry, which has long argued that its products are safe if properly used by farmers.
Responding to consumer concerns
When it comes to public perception, ECPA may indeed have a mountain to climb.
On the consumer end, anxiety rose after several studies found residual levels of pesticides in fruit and vegetables put on supermarket shelves. The European Commission tried addressing those concerns by pushing through legislation banning the use of the most toxic chemicals – those that can cause cancer or affect the reproduction system.
EU legislation also sets limits for pesticides in food – the so-called Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) above which consumption in large quantities can present a risk for human health.
Should consumers be worried about those trace amounts of pesticides in food?
Schmider certainly doesn’t believe so. "I could easily answer scientifically because the level or residue there cannot be a concern – it is far too low to be toxicologically relevant," he told EURACTIV.
"But this will not satisfy the society," he admitted. "So we said we would like to bring exceeding of MRLs to zero."
Saving crops – and the environment
Following the food contamination track, ECPA found many of the consumer issues the industry faced were due to farmers making improper use of pesticides – using too much of the wrong chemical or spraying too close to harvest.
Farmers, Schmider explained, are often tempted to spray excessive quantities, for example, to stop fungi from ruining a strawberry crop 24 hours before harvest.
He said farmers should look harder for alternative 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."
But efforts to curb pesticide use have so far yielded few results. Over the years, the consumption of pesticides has remained steady in Europe and has even tended to increase, Schmider pointed out, despite EU legislation aimed at reducing spraying.
As a result, pesticide contamination of European waterways is set to worsen in the coming decades, researchers warned in a recent study for the European Commission.
The EU executive took note of these warnings. In its proposals for the next Common Agriculture Policy, the Commission recommends measures aimed at encouraging farmers to use buffer areas and switch to crop rotation in an attempt to reduce both pesticide and fertiliser use.
Educating the farmers
On the frontline are the farmers themselves, who can suffer severe poisoning from exposure to pesticides, sometimes with fatal consequences.
A French association called 'Phyto-Victimes' demonstrated at the Paris agriculture show in February to denounce the "disinformation campaigns" which they claim are commissioned by industry groups to suggest that pesticides are not poisonous.
Schmider said he understood those concerns but that most of the time, health risks can be avoided by educating farmers to "use the pesticides properly".
"We have products which have to be biologically active and the consequence is that they have some side effects," Schmider conceded. He said a safe use initiative, which has been running for over 15 years, will be extended and rolled out to cover all countries in Europe and all crops.
In some cases, Schmider said poisoning can be caused by the imprudence of field workers operating under a baking sun. "If you have to wear in a hot climate condition 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."
Another, more long-term route, is to develop safer alternatives to the most toxic chemicals. Regulatory pressure has already decreased the number of substances from around 1,000 to 1,500 active ingredients to about 450 today, Schmider points out.
"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."
As a result, farmers have fewer products than before to rely on when confronted with a crop disease outbreak. And the research pipeline has not yet delivered the safer alternatives that farmers, regulators and the wider society have been calling for.
"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," Schmider said.
But developing safer chemicals that are still active in protecting crops is a daunting task, which requires many years of research and investment with no guarantee of success.
"Developing innovative products is like saying that you would like to go to the moon, but to get there is not so easy," Schmider stressed. Today, he said there were only about five companies looking for new active ingredients when there were at least 10, 12 or 15 two decades ago.
"The reason is very simple," he said. "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."
"So the dream to find very quickly a solution is not existing, especially with all the hurdles to put in place new active ingredients."