The objectives are already on the table, we still have to agree on their implementation. Wednesday, June 22, the European Commission must present its method to reduce the use of pesticides by 50% and the use of fertilizers by 20% by 2030, compared to the period 2015-2017. A brick of its great strategy to green European agriculture, called “Farm to fork” (“From the farm to the plate”).
The goal is controversial. The European Commission highlights the benefits for health and the environment. Opponents highlight the risk of a collapse in agricultural yields and have found in the Ukrainian crisis new arguments to call for a reconsideration of Brussels’ objectives.
Several European agriculture ministers have increased pressure on the European Commission in recent days, as the presentation of the text approaches. Italian Minister Stefano Patuanelli expressed concern that this “does not lead to a reduction in our production capacity, at the risk of disrupting the food supply”, the risk being to offset the declines in production by imports. Ten countries (Austria, Poland, Hungary, Baltic States, etc.) co-signed a letter expressing their reluctance.
It must be said that a study, published last August, came to give them food for thought. The Joint Research Center (JRC), scientific office of the European Commission, provided a first model, which concluded that the drop in pesticides and inputs could lead to a drop in production of 15% for cereals, 14% for meat and 12% for vegetables and permanent crops, particularly linked to lower yields. Prices paid to producers would increase by 10% at European level.
Mechanically, the agricultural trade balance would pay the price. Exports are expected to decline at varying levels depending on production. The European Union would however remain a net exporter of cereals.
However, the presentation of these results remains controversial. The formula for arriving at these results is highly technical but is based – to simplify – on a supply and demand model. However, this does not take into account the change in agronomic practices (such as the extension of crop rotation periods), the policies to reduce meat consumption or the fight against waste, also provided for by “Farm to fork “.
“If you take the hypothesis that the agricultural systems do not change and that you impose a strong constraint, it is normal that we end up with the result of a lower production, explains Pierre-Marie Aubert, researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI). It is not the farmer alone who will be able to initiate the transition, the challenge is to achieve the transformation of sectors, the creation of new markets, action on demand. For that, you need support. »
The study also does not take into account “acceleration of technological development” and the greater efficiency of techniques likely to occur before 2030 (plant resistance, development of spreading equipment, precision agriculture and livestock farming) or even improvements in yields resulting from better environmental health. On the other hand, it warns of the risk – raised by opponents – that part of the environmental benefits will be reduced by the import of products from outside the EU, which are less environmentally friendly.
Moreover, it does not constitute an impact assessment of the text, as it points out itself. The Commission indicated that an evaluation taking into account all aspects of the “Farm to fork” strategy was in progress. However, these results will not be returned until the end of the year, after the presentation of its proposals.
In the meantime, the European institution has already indicated that it was not “No way ” to come back to the scope of his text because of the war in Ukraine, during a question-and-answer session with the European Parliament on 6 June. The question now is to what extent it will make the quantified targets mandatory, and how they will be distributed: either with the same target everywhere, or a target set at European level, with variations at national level. A new battle will then begin between the Commission, Member States and the European Parliament, to reach a final agreement.
Pesticide use is not decreasing
Since 2011, pesticide sales in Europe have fallen by 10.2%, according to Eurostat. However, the quantity spread per hectare is tending to increase: it went from 2.98 kg in 2011 to 3.13 kg in 2019.
In France, the objective of reducing the use of pesticides by 50% in ten years had already been set in 2009, after the Grenelle de l’environnement. It has finally increased by 15% since 2009.
Greenhouse gas emissions linked to the European agricultural sector have stagnated for ten years. The digestion of farm animals represents 38% of these emissions, and the spreading of chemical and natural fertilizers represents 33%, according to a report by the European Court of Auditors.