The European Commission has acknowledged some tweaking is necessary to their original regulation limiting pesticide use, but farmers must acknowledge change is coming
By Alexandra Attalides
Τhe recent mobilisation of Cypriot and European farmers initiated a significant debate on the use of pesticides and plant protection products (PPP) in agricultural production. It seems that all over Europe farmers are worried in view of impending significant changes in the relevant legislation promoted by the European Union.
Taking into consideration the importance that the EU attributes to the quality of the food we consume and the impact of its production on the environment – as reflected in the European Green Deal and embedded in the strategies “From farm to fork” and “Biodiversity” – it was expected that the extensive use of pesticides would come up. These central policy strategies are directly and inextricably linked to the European and member states food security, the quality of food consumed by Europeans, the promotion of local production and consumption, the impact on human health and, of course, the reversal of the loss of biodiversity spreading across Europe and our planet over the last decades.
Much to our regret, Cyprus was ranked second in the EU in terms of pesticide use, based on Eurostat’s latest statistics (2014), recording 9.57 kg/ha (kilograms per hectare). According to the unofficial update of the Department of Environment, the new measurements, expected to be published in 2023, may demonstrate a noticeable improvement in the reduction of pesticide use, but overall Cyprus remains in the -negative- top positions and far from the EU average.
The European Commission’s proposal
The legislative changes necessary for the implementation of the EU strategy are reflected in the main provisions of the regulation on the Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products proposed by the European Commission. The regulation, which is directly applicable in member states, essentially repeals and replaces the Directive 2009/128/EC, while its legal effects are uniformly binding in all the national legislations. In fact, on June 22, 2022, the European Commission tabled a proposal for a regulation on the sustainable use of pesticides, setting legally binding targets at EU level to reduce by 50 per cent the use and the risk of chemical pesticides as well as the use of more hazardous pesticides by 2030, in line with the EU’s ‘farm to fork’ strategy. Furthermore, it promoted environmentally friendly methods of pest control, banning at the same time the use of all pesticides in sensitive areas.
The last provision, which stipulates the total ban of PPP in sensitive areas, even of organic ones, seems to be the main reason for the farmers’ negative reactions. The original document (June 2022) provided for a ban on the use of all categories of plant protection products (A: low risk, B: standard, C: candidate for replacement) and in all sensitive areas, those used by the general public, human settlements, urban areas covered by a watercourse or water feature, non-productive areas as defined under the EU standards on Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions, and ecologically sensitive areas.
Ecologically sensitive areas include water protection areas – ground water, surface water etc. – which, at present, constitute 79 per cent of the cultivated land in Cyprus.
Sites falling within the Natura 2000 network are also included in these sensitive areas, covering 8 per cent of the cultivated land, and are not considered as an additional land. Based on the above, it seems that, initially, the concerns of Cypriot farmers are well-founded.
Such a development is expected to cause a chain of events with various effects, not only in Cyprus, but in several other EU countries. It is important to note that in some countries, ecologically sensitive areas, as defined by the proposed regulation, constitute 100 per cent of the cultivated land, a fact that has alarmed the governments of numerous member states.
The implementation of the initial proposal framework will have a serious impact on food production in Cyprus as it may push a substantial part of the farming community out of the production sector, create serious problems of sufficiency of production for the island’s needs, as well as cause significant increases in the cost of products at each stage of the supply chain and in particular in the final purchase price. These come into contradiction with the main objectives promoted by the EU in this regulation.
Rational revision of the regulation
The commission therefore recognising the aforementioned effects and the concerns expressed by most member states, as well as being alarmed by the mass pan-European mobilisation of farmers in many countries, in November 2022 issued a non-paper in which it reviewed the original framework and proposed some modifications. This non-paper, which is now used as a reference and is expected to be formally sent out in the form of a new draft regulation, revises some key provisions.
In particular, it lifts the ban on the use of the least harmful plant protection products (category A) and maintains the right to use certain plant protection products in ecologically sensitive areas, including those used in organic farming. It also changes the approach as to what is perceived a “sensitive area”, while maintaining the principles underlying the regulation, setting at its core, the protection of the population’s health, of vulnerable groups and of pollinators.
It is hence understood that the balance can be found somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, the farmers’ concerns are valid and must be taken into account both by the state and the commission. The revised proposed regulation, through which, instead of a horizontal ban on plant protection products, the right of use will be defined vertically and on a region-by-region and product-by-product basis, reveals the decision makers’ intentions.
On the other hand, we should not overlook our country’s negative lead in the use of pesticides, a fact that – apart from the obvious effects on our health and the environment – it also affects the ‘brand’ of Cyprus as an exporter of agricultural products, a brand we must certainly safeguard.
Support of farmers during the transition
The transition to a new, more sustainable era of food production can and should be done rationally and fairly. This can be achieved through the policy package of supportive measures, included in the European Commission’s Regulation, which include the introduction of:
- new Common Agricultural Policy rules in order to compensate farmers for the costs associated with the regulation’s implementation for a transitional period of five years
- more vigorous actions to increase the number of organic alternatives in the market
- research and development under EU programmes to support new technologies and techniques, including precision agriculture
- an action plan for organic production, with a view to achieving the pesticide targets of the Farm to Fork strategy
The protection of primary production is non-negotiable. It is thus extremely important that competent authorities examine this matter very carefully, engaging in a broad consultation with the farmers and the civil society, in addition to the involvement of the House agriculture committee. We shall always keep in mind that the future of food systems might be affecting directly the agricultural world, but in the end, it comes down to our health, the planet, all of us.
Alexandra Attalides is a member of the House of Representatives for the Cyprus Greens – Citizens’ Cooperation