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Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation Opens Door to Huge Possibility

By Emma Brown, Director of Public Affairs at CropLife Europe.

This article was originally published on Linkedin.

As a child growing up on the outskirts of the EU bubble, I often listened to discussions on the merits of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), viewed as the EU’s ‘gold standard’ legislative framework in agriculture but even so I did not immediately realise that this year is the 60th anniversary of the CAP – quite a feat in itself. The CAP is a partnership between agriculture and society, between Europe and its farmers. Its fundamental aims are to support farmers, improve agricultural productivity and ensure a stable and affordable food supply. 

Over the years, the CAP has been complemented by other policies but none more transformative than the European Green Deal under the von der Leyen Commission. As with all three of the flagship initiatives launched, it is a highly ambitious plan which aims to drive the transition towards sustainable agriculture in the EU by putting environmental conscience before action. 

What I mean by this is that environmental benefits and consequences drive the conversation, something which isn’t necessarily new to us but prior to the Green Deals (the EU’s isn’t the only one), it had not been so prescriptive. 

Now anyone reading this may be thinking this is just a shopping list of policies. You’re not wrong, but there is a reason both the Green Deal and the CAP have been introduced (bear with me). 

Today’s geopolitical and environmental volatility have put a stark focus on how vital it is for the EU and its Member States to invest in the resilience of our food supply and support our farmers – two of the fundamental pillars of the original CAP. However, as always, the means to accomplish this objective needs to be considered. 

The European Commission’s proposed new Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation – the SUR as it is known in Brussels (because there’s always an acronym!) – is one of the legislative tools to achieve the Green Deal and Farm to Fork’s objectives. Prior to its reform, Member States already struggled to meet the original targets they were set, though the latest data released a week before the SUR (15 June) demonstrated a decline in the use of pesticides. This concerted effort by the Member States does not seem to have been fully acknowledged, so is it likely they will be able to meet the far more stringent national targets set in its new version? In other words, with the new SUR, has the Commission bitten off rather more than the EU Member States can chew?

The challenge is not because of Member States’ and farmers’ unwillingness to meet these targets. The challenge is far simpler: if you remove agricultural tools from a farmer’s toolkit, what do you replace them with? Simply not replacing them is not the solution – doing that sends production backwards, the reverse of what is needed.

This challenge is magnified further as Europe’s food security stakes rise and it needs to feed an increasing population with affordable, safe and healthy food in a time of regional instability. 

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom. Agricultural technologies are evolving faster than ever, but today it still takes over a decade for a new product to be certified and placed on the market. This is too long and leaves the farmers at a complete disadvantage. 

With the emphasis on finding solutions and reducing the use of conventional pesticides, it seems like a no-brainer to improve this process so farmers aren’t left with a half empty toolbox. 

Biopesticides, for example, are a whole new class of crop protection products that use living organisms found in nature, such as microbes. In addition, ‘big data’ chemistry allows hundreds of thousands of different chemical structures to be processed, so enabling crop protection products to act with pinpoint accuracy and hence ensuring minimal use. New seed coatings, applied before planting, can also protect against pests and diseases, so negating the need for pesticides altogether. Putting chemistry and biochemistry to one side, perhaps the biggest driver towards achieving the SUR will come from digital farming technologies. The EU has put a huge focus on embracing and supporting digital advances in other sectors and other industries, but it has put far less investment into the digital agriculture revolution. This embraces the entire agri-food value chain, before, during, and after production. It includes on-farm technologies such as yield mapping, GPS guidance systems, weather prediction and precision spraying, as well as a wealth of innovations away from the farm.

All these innovations – and many more – can and will drive a more sustainable farming sector. But they need encouragement, proper investment and support, both at EU and at Member State level. With that foundation and alongside the CAP, we need a supportive regulatory system which is enforced correctly to protect us and accelerates the processes to maintain the competitiveness of European agriculture and helps European farmers achieve the ambitions of the new SUR.