Pesticide bans are catch-22 for landowners

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Crop protection products need to evolve with changing threats. [Les Haines/Flickr]

Landowners need crop protection products to feed our growing population. By removing crop protection products from the market, the EU is endangering its own food security, writes Robert de Graeff.

Robert de Graeff is senior policy officer for the European Landowners’ Organisation.

It is fair to say that pesticides and the industry producing them are not much loved by many in Europe today. But our members depend on both these products and companies, and the crop protection choices made every day, on every farm, literally end up on our plate. The fact is that those choices are becoming more limited because increasing regulation means it now takes between five and 11 years and around €200 million for any new products to come on the market. That is an absurdly long and costly timeframe and it is leaving our members increasingly short of tools to combat the real threats to food safety and supply: pests, diseases and weeds. For European farmers, the cupboard is getting bare at exactly the moment when pressure to produce sustainably and in abundance is growing.

It is this background that brings urgency to the current agri-mergers (Dow/Dupont, Syngenta/ChemChina, and Bayer/Monsanto). Each merger needs to be examined individually and carefully but, for some of them at least, product development costs are a factor driving them to band together. Our members recognise that without the scale that comes from merging, the companies we depend upon for crop protection products may not be able bring to market the new and innovative products we need.

This is a real concern. Our members are constantly faced with new threats to their fields and forests. Where possible, they will try to act without resorting to chemical solutions, but often they can’t be efficient and cost-effective without them. Pests and diseases are jumping from one country to the other, even from one continent to another. Climate change is pushing plants and species out of their normal habitats and into new areas where they can swiftly create extraordinary changes, many of them negative. The natural process of developing resistance to existing pesticides requires new products to combat evolving threats. Against this backdrop, when we look ahead we see many problems but few solutions.

The neonicotinoids are gone, glyphosate still hangs in the balance after public opinion overruled scientific evidence and we are still anxiously awaiting the final results of the endocrine disruption proposals. Our members are striving to maintain the crop protection tools they have and pushing for new ones that can do the job better, safer, and (if possible) cheaper. In this, land managers are often partners with the agri-chemical industry; we work together to combat threats and provide safe food. That is not an exaggeration, but daily life for many in rural areas.

The reduction from seven companies to four could represent less competition among themselves, and perhaps even market dominance in certain product classes or geographical areas. Our members agree; there may be potential threats and it is for the European Commission to mitigate them. But the EU cannot have its cake and eat it too. It cannot create high cost and regulatory barriers to innovation but then prevent the mergers which would create companies that have the long-term capital and R&D firepower to overcome these very barriers.

The current situation has created a dangerous catch-22 situation for the customers of this industry; we remain caught between the Scylla of no access to better, safer, more up-to-date products and Charybdis of market concentration. Given this choice, we would rather see new products on the market and better access to innovation, whoever supplies it. We cannot do without those new products, even if we could be at risk of post-merger price increases.

If concerns over market concentration are so high, Europe has the tools to spur both innovation and allow new players to enter the market. It can create simpler but equally rigorous approval processes and empower public research into crop protection products that can then be produced without intellectual property rights. More immediately, member states need to reform the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed to resolve its regulatory deadlock. These reforms would spur more innovation, increase competition and see more players enter this difficult market.

In the end, land managers stand with their backs against the wall. Nature, trade, resistance development, and climate change will continue to throw up new challenges and to revive old ones. That process cannot be stopped by regulation. The consequent demand for tools to combat these changes and deliver safe, affordable food means that research and innovation must continue. With the current regulatory structures that means some companies must merge so that they can continue to pay the costs of creating the new tools land managers need.

If the EU remains in its current state of indecision about regulatory barriers and innovation pressures in agriculture, then serious problems will emerge. Once this happens, the EU will not be able to claim to speak on behalf of either farmers or competition. They will lie in a bed of their own making.

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