EU sets pesticides and eco-rules to avoid 'pollinator collapse'

New rules to reduce the use of pesticides in the EU and support farmers were unveiled by the European Commission on Wednesday (22 June) – after a three-month delay due to rising concerns over the impact of the war in Ukraine on global food supplies.

“Using the war in Ukraine to water down proposals and scare Europeans into believing sustainability means less food is frankly quite irresponsible, because the climate and biodiversity crises… is what threatens our food security,” EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans told a press conference when unveiling the proposal.

Pesticides are chemicals used for the protection of plants and crops, but they are potentially toxic to humans and are seen as one of the main drivers behind the rapid loss of bees and other pollinators.

EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said that without stricter rules there is a risk of “pollinator and ecosystem collapse, which will have greater impacts on food security and food prices”.

The legislative proposal, which still needs to be backed by member states and MEPs, makes it legally binding the 50-percent-pesticide-reduction target first mentioned in the Farm to Fork strategy.

But national capitals will be able to set their own targets within defined limits – taking into account historic data on pesticide sales and the national pesticide use of each country.

Nevertheless, the rules set a floor for national targets of at least 35 percent pesticide reductions.

Annual reports will have to be produced annually by national authorities and the EU executive will be able to intervene when national targets are considered insufficient to achieve the overall target, a commission official told reporters on Wednesday.

“This is a proposal based on science and, most importantly, delivering on citizens’ expectations,” Kyriakydes said.

In fact, the use of pesticides is a major food concern for nearly 40 percent of Europeans, a recent citizen initiative supported by 1.2 million people calls for a pesticide-free Europe by 2035, and citizens participating in the Conference of the Future of Europe have called for “the drastic reduction” of these chemicals.

Pesticide ban in public parks

The commission proposal also introduces a ban on all pesticides in so-called sensitive areas, such as public parks, playgrounds, schools, sports grounds, public paths and Natura 2000 protection sites.

Other measures include making keeping records of pesticides in their crops obligatory for farmers and promoting alternatives to ensure the use of these chemical pesticides only as a last resort.

EU auditors have already raised doubts about the system used to measure progress toward pesticide-reduction targets in 2020, although pesticides-risk indicators have also been a source of concern to campaigners and the organic community for years.

The commission has acknowledged that existing rules have been “too weak” and “ineffective” to adequately reduce the use of these chemicals while arguing that EU member states have done more than others to reduce the use and risks of these chemicals during the last decade.

Denmark, for example, has managed to reduce the use of plant protection products in recent years thanks to policy instruments such as its pesticide tax.

The Scandinavian country is part of a group of EU countries that use fewer pesticides to protect crops – together with Romania, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Lithuania.

By contrast, the biggest amount of pesticide use per hectare of cropland is in the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, France and Greece, according to Eurostat figures.

Yet, Germany, Spain, France and Italy are by far the biggest buyers of pesticides in the EU.

Under the commission proposal, farmers will be able to use funding from the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) to overcome the costs of alternative pesticide techniques and other incentives such as precision funding for a transition period of five years.

In addition, there will be additional financial and educational support, the commission said.

Nature restoration

Meanwhile, the commission also presented a separate proposal to restore at least 20 percent of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030 – after decades of legislation have failed to reverse the declining state of habitats, pollinator populations, and others.

“The world has changed… we have reached a political momentum that will allow us to change direction,” Timmermans said, arguing how new restoration targets and obligations will bring a change.

Once the legislation is adopted, EU member states will have two years to prepare national restoration plans to achieve the overall target.

Overall, nature restoration measures are expected to be in place by 2030 while the pesticide-reduction target should be reached by 2030.

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