Can European agriculture go pesticide-free?

Co-funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

1. Learn the ropes

What is a pesticide?
A pesticide (also known as a phytosanitary product) is a chemical used to kill insects and other organisms deemed harmful. As such, pesticides can also be used on small animals and plants that could prevent crops from growing. Several kinds of products are spread: antibiotics, weedkillers, insecticide, fungicides, or even fertilizers. The European Union currently allows about 350 different products to be used on its soil. However, due to their extensive use, pesticides can now be found everywhere: in our food, in the ground, in meat, our drinking water and even in the air. This explains why the use of pesticides is often talked about in the public sphere. Farmers are getting sick, soils polluted, and pollinators going extinct due to the power of the pesticide lobby in Brussels. As a result, the new common agricultural policy (CAP) and its rules regarding pesticides are still being questioned by some political activists.
why do we use so many pesticides and what is their impact?
Many factors contribute to the increased use of pesticides: global population growth, the search for higher returns, the labor force decline due to rural flight as pesticides started being massively marketed in the 1940s. The second half of the twentieth century has witnessed a spread of the use of pesticides. They have been essential to the development of industrial and intensive agriculture. Within fifty years, our farmers have become completely reliant on pesticides; according to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), the use of pesticides in the world has doubled from 1.7 to 2.7 million tons between 1990 and 2018. Scientists however know that pesticides can cause many deadly diseases. Some Member-States have thus decided to go further than the EU to forbid the use of some substances. For instance, France has been forbidding the use of neonicotinoids (developed in the 1980s) in the agricultural sector for the past four years.
What are the CAP’s goals regarding pesticides?
The new common agricultural policy for 2023-2027 has ambitious environmental goals that are aligned with the European Green Deal’s recommendations. As such, 40% of the CAP budget (386,6 billion euros) is dedicated to climate action, including EU-wide targets to reduce by 50% the use and risk of chemical pesticides by 2030, in line with the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy. The goal is to make pesticide use compatible with sustainable development. Member States will set their own national reduction targets within defined parameters to ensure that the EU wide targets are achieved. This is convenient for some countries as French agriculture relies on the use of pesticides, even though the quantity of pesticides used in the country remains at the European average. Most European farmers rely on phytosanitary products to harvest crops. The goal of the new CAP is to help Member States transition to more environmentally-friendly agriculture through solutions based on nature, such as integrated pest management or biological pest control.
Will the new CAP’s rules be enough to change our agriculture in Europe? Can we really go pesticide-free? Two experts answer and debate.

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The idea behind the Rift is simple: for each topic of debate, we provide you with an expertise based on a pro-con approach, written by competent and legitimate experts. We want to help you make your own opinion, and guide you on first steps to civic engagement.

Can European agriculture go pesticide-free?


Getting rid of pesticides : an emergency

Nicolas Laarman

delegate general at the NGO POLLINIS 


Supported by public authorities and praised by the chemical industry, conventional farming has made a promise to feed the world thanks to its gigantic monocultures and high-yielding crops boosted with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Intensive farming is destructive to all living beings. Pesticides and other chemicals deplete and contaminate the soil, pollute groundwater and rivers, and kill the organisms that live there. Through the extermination of pollinating insects, such as bees or butterflies which are indispensable to 84% of crop growing in the EU, pesticides compromise food security of our future generations.

Many farmers are already producing at good yields without pesticides

To keep growing crops on damaged soils and face “enemies” such as insects, weeds or fungus growing more and more resistant, farmers resort to ever more toxic chemical treatments that are dangerous to their own health. Nature, citizens and farmers are the victims of this deadly system, which is extremely costly in terms of aid and subsidies. 

But agriculture can go pesticides free: in France and in Europe, many farmers are already producing at good yields without pesticides. Agroecology, for instance, makes it possible to find new farming methods to produce with the help of existing ecosystems while preserving natural resources. Organic agriculture does not require the use of chemical pesticides, since organic cultivation techniques are based on crop rotation, mechanical techniques for weeding, using appropriate seed varieties, biological pest control, etc. 

Transition plans that would help farmers to go pesticide-free do exist

According to a study conducted in France over four years on rapeseed plots, crops are more cost-effective with abundant pollination provided with the presence of many pollinating insects during the blooming period, rather than with the systematic use of pesticides that tend to eradicate them. Another scientific study led by the CNRS and the Inrae (two renowned public research institutes) has also shown that pollination is far more beneficial than the use of pesticides. 

Transition plans that would help farmers to go pesticide-free do exist. The Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) has for instance published a plan to transition to agroecology on an European scale that would make it possible to feed its 500 millions inhabitants without the use of pesticides within the next thirty years. So why don’t we immediately switch systems? With the tacit agreement of public authorities supposed to protect citizens, the agribusiness lobbies have successfully managed to stop this change from happening to preserve the huge profits they make out of this system. 

The question is no longer whether the European Union can do without pesticides

An impulse from public policies would be essential in order to initiate a real agricultural transition, set up a new pact between farmers and citizens, redirect subsidies and develop public research. The question is no longer whether the European Union can do without pesticides, but whether our political leaders will be willing to fight for general interest rather than for the profits of agrochemical and agribusiness companies to ensure our food security.


Food sovereignty is our priority

Damien Greffin

Farmer and president of the FNSEA Grand Bassin Parisien


Pesticides, also known as phytosanitary products, have existed since the Neolithic period and the development of agriculture. The first farmers had to defend themselves against natural hazards to be able to harvest their crops and benefit from their hard work. Moreover, the population was growing steadily and needed food. Without harvest, famine would have been guaranteed.

We use pesticides to protect our lands so human beings can feed on the crops they grow 

Previously natural, pesticides became “synthetic” after the second World War with the help of scientific discoveries in chemistry. Back then, Europe was facing many challenges. In ruins, the continent had to rebuild itself quickly. Overtime, synthetic pesticides have decreased food poisonings, and have put an end to famines, such as those caused by potato blight between 1845 and 1851, which killed a million Irish people. The reason why we use pesticides is to protect our lands from insects, weeds, fungi and other pests so human beings can feed on the crops they grow. 

Pesticides are not trivial products which is why their use is controlled. They are regulated by marketing authorizations following several years of research on their presumed toxicology. As with any medicine, we have to respect a specific posology.

We are far from having safe alternatives to synthetic pesticides

Pesticides protect crops from the impact of climatic and sanitary hazards. They guarantee a stable annual production level. They thus reduce shortage risks and temper the speculative nature of financial markets, which get out of hand when there is a production shortage. They are also a necessary catalyst to protect our food sovereignty. With globalization and free trade, each country has a role to play to feed the world’s population.

Pesticides, whether natural or synthetic, are thus essential, but they do have an impact on the environment. Rather than banning them, we should rather reduce their impact through active research and development. If we cannot reduce their impact, we must find alternative solutions that are effective, affordable and not time-consuming to implement. However, to this day, we are far from having safe alternatives to these synthetic pesticides.  

We cannot afford to stop using pesticides in such a complex situation

The European goal to reduce pesticides use by half by 2030 does not give enough time for proper research. The Ukrainian war makes it even less reasonable to follow this timeline. We first need impact measurement of this policy before actually implementing it. Once agriculture is in decline, it takes time to resume production. Moreover, the goal is not only to think about the consequences we will have to face in a year, but more importantly in ten years. It is indeed easier to unravel a sweater than to knit it from scratch.

Food sovereignty is our main issue. We cannot afford to stop using pesticides in such a complex situation. The world evolves faster than our regulations at the risk of annihilating, very quickly, nearly 70 years of research and development that have enabled us to eat healthy and to satiety all year long at reasonable prices.

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