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Let’s talk about the transition, not just the targets

By Olivier de Matos, Director General of CropLife Europe.

This opinion was originally published in The Brussels Times.

Today, our food production system brings quality food to the tables of European citizens. Food which is safe, tasty, diverse, and affordable. Europe’s bountiful agricultural system ensures that our continent is a major player in the global food market. We export and import all kinds of agricultural products, providing employment and support to millions of farmers in Europe and around the world.

However, we also recognise that our food production system, although efficient, is being challenged to be more sustainable. Agriculture needs resources – fuel, pesticides, fertilizers, water – which society is asking us to reduce to mitigate the overall impact of food production on our planet.

This is an essential, but complex debate. There are a great many factors in play and it is often tempting just to oversimplify the debate by stripping it down to meeting a set of targets – isolated targets that many hope hold all the answers.

But addressing one target in isolation, while ignoring all the other factors necessary to grow food, is arbitrary and does not provide a sustainable path for this complex transition.

It all boils down to a few fundamental questions. Is it possible for pesticides use to be reduced while remaining productive and competitive? Yes, it is. Should it be a mandatory, fixed target? No. Do the exiting EU regulations provide sufficient support to our industry to enable the required transition in the food systems? No.

It’s all about the farmers’ toolbox

Our industry has made it a priority to invest in a variety of complementary tools that reduce famers’ reliance on pesticides and offer them solutions to increase the sustainability of their farms. Our job is certainly not yet completed. On the contrary, we are continuing to invest billions of euros to make progress along a number of promising avenues, offering ever more innovative solutions to farmers.

Today, the farmers’ toolbox is full of new and innovative products, such as biopesticides which are much more selective in their targets and which have a much greener profile than older equivalent products. Also included are new, sustainable chemicals derived from nature, which can be used in organic farming as well as in integrated pest management strategies. There are high-tech precision applications, which enable the delivery of the minimum amount of crop protection, in precisely the right place at exactly the right time. And there are new genomic techniques, which enable farmers to farm in difficult conditions, or to use less chemicals, or even to improve crop yield and quality.

We are already seeing how new technologies like digital farming are shrinking agriculture’s ecological footprint. The latest harmonised risk indicator shows a trend of pesticide reduction use and risk of 21%. This proves that we are on the right track.

Our industry is making these investments because we believe in the future of agriculture. Moreover, by embracing the latest agricultural innovations and solutions, it will be possible to produce food for everyone – in Europe and further afield – in a more sustainable, less impactful way.

But here in Europe, we need to foster this innovation and encourage these developments.

We need more coherence between the legislative pieces

The current Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation (SUR) proposal obliges each Member State to reach mandatory reduction targets in pesticide use and risk. But this target takes no account of the fact that nearly 50% of all applications for solutions or alternatives have been stuck in the EU regulatory pipeline since 2011.

Currently, it takes more than 10 years for any alternative solution to arrive on the market – that is way beyond any target or deadline set by the SUR. Farmers simply cannot wait that long. Pests and diseases certainly don’t.

Innovative biopesticides also face hurdles in their registration process, with no dedicated guidance documents – and the EU has only recently provided adapted requirements for publication of microorganisms. But where are the dedicated pathways for biochemicals, or peptides etc?

As in most industries, new substances or new applications always have a more favourable profile than existing ones. We acknowledge that developing new regulatory requirements takes time – but the current excessive time-lag is causing innovation to stall.

Even on the digital side, progress is painfully slow. Farmers today are facing many economic challenges, while at the same time being hindered by the often very limited availability of high-speed internet in rural areas while they also have to cope with the complexity of the European regulatory regimes.

In a nutshell, the agri-food industry has been set a huge global challenge – to transform the food production system and make it more sustainable, less resource intensive, but to a large extent, more productive. And we are being asked to meet this challenge with one hand tied behind our back. Can we really ask European farmers to achieve this ambition with fewer pesticides  including newer or better ones – on fewer advanced seeds, and no access to complementary digital options?

Targets alone are not the solution

Reducing the impact of farming must not mean limiting the solutions available to farmers. Instead, it must embrace the rapid emergence of new and better solutions, adapting farming practices and using technologies to farm using fewer resources. Arbitrary targets are not the solution. We need regulatory transition pathways.

Our industry supports the ambitions of the European Green Deal. We are doing that by investing in sustainable solutions to protect crops. One thing that won’t change in the future, however, is the presence of pests, weeds, and diseases. They won’t just go away.

Opinion by Olivier de Matos, Director General of CropLife Europe