With or without pesticides?

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

[European Crop Protection Association]

Regulations that prohibit farmers from protecting their crops are putting our food supply at risk, writes Graeme Taylor.

Graeme Taylor is a spokesperson for the European Crop Protection Association.

What’s the purpose of a farmer? They do a lot more than growing cereal, fruits, and vegetables. In fact, they are stewards of our lands for future generations. A farmer’s job is difficult: they must produce high-quality food, sustainably, while maximising productivity. They have a demanding audience. Consumers expect – and deserve – to have access to safe and affordable food. But with prices under pressure, a farmer’s job has become like walking a tightrope.

Add to that another complication: European regulation threatens to remove the tools farmers need to do their jobs, namely innovative and efficient products that protect plants from damaging influences including insects, weeds, parasites, and fungi. These products are key elements of a farmer’s toolkit, and farmers are trained to use them carefully, and only when needed.

When debating whether European farmers should have access to pesticides, is the question as simple as ‘with or without’? Do people form opinions about pesticides based on fact, or on emotion? How about Brussels policy-makers and influencers? Do they consider all the facts to inform their decisions? Are choices being made on a basis of facts and science – or is emotion playing an increasing role? After all, food is an emotional topic. Our industry acknowledges that there are concerns about our products, and we take these concerns very seriously.

But there is also a lack of understanding of what pesticides are, or indeed of what food production really looks like, and why pesticides are necessary.

A prime example of this: on 19 May the European Commission failed to reach a decision on the renewal of the active substance glyphosate. This further delay is disappointing, but, of course, we wouldn’t expect the member states to rush to a decision on such an important issue. That said, 90,000 pages of evidence, 3,300 peer-reviewed studies, EFSA’s opinion, WHO’s opinion, and a European Parliament resolution – not to mention regulatory authorities around the world – all support re-approval, yet politics is being allowed to undermine what should be a straightforward science-based approval process.

An April 2016 YouGov study shows that only 4% of adults surveyed in Europe (UK, Germany, Spain, Poland) correctly estimate that world food production must increase by 60% by 2050 to meet the demand of the growing population. The 60% figure is according to the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. When asked to identify the figure by which world food production must increase, 61% of respondents underestimate the amount.

Furthermore, survey respondents misjudge the role that pesticides play in supplying affordable food to consumers. In fact, only 31% of adults surveyed think that farmers’ inability to protect their crops against diseases and crop infestation is a factor directly linked to the cost of the world’s food supply. But 91% agree that their access to healthy, fresh food is linked to price.

There is an obvious disconnect. If farmers cannot protect their crops, the cost will inevitably increase. Europe can’t have it both ways. Pesticides help farmers provide safe and affordable food.

The reality is that decisions made today in Brussels can have an immediate and significant impact on our food supply and will absolutely impact the ability of future generations to access safe, sustainable and affordable food. When Brussels limits farmer access to innovation, there are implications on how much our food costs, what we eat, and how we eat.

This is a critical moment for European agriculture.

We need to enable our farmers to produce more food, and to empower them to feed more people with increased efficiency, using less land and fewer natural resources. Politicians, industry, and society need to work together to develop integrated and sustainable solutions. To succeed, farmers will need access to all of the available technology.

As for industry, we are aware that there is an information gap, and we know there are negative perceptions about our products. We want to tackle this. We are intent on engaging decision makers and society in a conversation about the role pesticides play in food production. We want to address existing misunderstandings and preconceptions and demonstrate our real commitment to protecting human health and the environment. We want to have an open, factual, and honest debate.

When we pose a simple question — With or without pesticides? — one thing is certain. The answer is not always clear-cut.

Let’s not let tomorrow’s generations suffer because of decisions Brussels takes today.

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