Farmers want to grow food.
It would be hypocritical of us to stop them.
November 23, 2023
Something unexpected happened this week. On Wednesday evening, 299 MEPs in the European Parliament voted against the long-debated Sustainable Use of Pesticides (SUR) policy. SUR had been developed by the EU Commission and adopted as a proposal in June 2022 as part of its plan to become the first carbon neutral continent. Only 207 MEPs were in favour of the policy along with 121 absenteeisms, which ultimately defeated any chance of the bill being passed this legislative term.
The main targets from SUR are as follows:
- 25% of EU agriculture to be organic by 2030
- Reduce by 50% the use of pesticides by 2030
- Reduce the use of fertilizers by 20% by 2030
- Reduce nutrient loss by at least 50%
The targets were seen by some in the agricultural industry as impossible to achieve with current processes and available technologies whereas environmentalists touted it as essential regulation to protect the planet and human health.
Several of the major news outlets have covered the unusual event, with the Financial Times reporting that ‘conservative lawmakers hailed the vote as a victory for farmers’.
At Farmable, my team and I have the pleasure of working alongside European farmers. We have users from all 28 member states, and most would be described as progressive. They have implemented digital ways of working, GPS track their operations, actively use techniques described as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and most of all, they care about the health of the planet.
Farms are not against sustainability but first and foremost; they are for producing food.
Remember that the value of any farm is, first and foremost, its soil. Farmers are both business people and humans, like the rest of us. They are intrinsically motivated to care about soil health not only for the good of the planet but also for the value of their farm and its potential to grow healthy crops. Any notion that the farm was against the latest policy on pesticide reductions doesn’t come from a place of short-sightedness on sustainability; it comes from a desire to produce food while avoiding bankruptcy.
“Let farmers farm!” said Alexander Bernhuber, a centre-right Austrian MEP. “We all want fewer plant protection products used on farmland. But reducing them must not jeopardise food production in Europe, make food more expensive, or lead to farmers quitting their businesses.”
Less pesticides, in theory, would be a welcome change for most farmers. When you look at the costs of running a farming operation, the only thing more expensive than pesticides is the salaries paid to people who work on the farm and have to carefully manage the safety risks associated with chemicals. Less pesticides would mean significant savings and less risk to manage, so in principle, it sounds great. The complex reality is that growers often get a lower yield and a lower quality crop when they attempt lower chemical applications. These two factors combine as a double hit to the farm’s bottom line, which feels impossible to offset with long-term gains in soil health. Even our most progressive farmers find the prospect of producing economically viable crops with 50% less pesticides extremely challenging.
“EU farmers and agri-cooperatives will continue to improve their environmental sustainability, but they need realistic objectives and the necessary support, two elements that are completely missing from the Commission’s text. Copa and Cogeca have consistently denounced the gap between political rhetoric and the lack of concrete solutions of this proposal,” says a COPA-COGECA press release.
So what now?
You can start small, but you need to get started
The EU Green Deal continues and is much bigger than the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation, with its overarching goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030. As demonstrated in the ‘Fit for 55’ legislation, which, as of October 2023, has fully adopted targets for sectors outside of agriculture.
For agriculture specifically, there are 10 areas of reform under the EU Green Deal of which the Sustainable Use of Pesticides is only one. The other 9 areas of reform remain unscathed. So what do these regulations mean to the 10 million EU farms ?
- CAP funding will be directly linked to eco-schemes such as precision farming, carbon farming, organic farming and animal welfare improvements
- Digitization of farm data will be essential to accurate reporting; which will be required to be stored in an electronic format as of January 1, 2026.
- Climate tracking is also expected to be confirmed in 2025 and will likely be required for electricity consumption, water usage and fuel consumption.
If you’d like to stay up to date on what the EU Green Deal means to your farm, join our free Farmable Compliance Newsletter and get the latest news directly to your inbox.
Finally, we haven’t seen the last of the debate on pesticide reduction. New targets for chemical reduction will certainly be on the agenda soon; the question is now how and when they are implemented, not if they will exist. We should also expect that some pieces of the original SUR policy will remain; the initiative to promote Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as a standard operating procedure is a practical step in ensuring alternatives to chemical use have been assessed. SUR further created the requirement to seek independent advice for non-chemical pest control methods (as opposed to all advice coming from commercial agronomists) which would help offset a longstanding conflict of interest and increase awareness of alternative control methods.
All in all, the benchmarking and monitoring the progress on the use of plant protection products is already happening in Europe and farms must expect the need to be increasingly transparent with what chemicals are used. While we wait for the next round of negotiations on reduction targets, we can make progress by preparing for a future where farms openly report their use of pesticides. Doing so will build trust with not only the politicians and lawmakers but also with society at large.
Do you want to learn more about how to get started with digital reporting practices?
Find out more at: Farmable Pro