EU should improve statistics on pesticides, develop better risk indicators and make payment of agricultural subsidies conditional on integral pest management, according to a new report published last week by the European Court of Auditors (ECA).
Plant protection products (“pesticides”) are used to protect crops against harmful organisms, pests and diseases. Using these products pose risks to human health, including through residues in food, and can put pressure on the environment such as water and soil quality, biodiversity and ecosystems.
The main objective of the performance audit was to assess if EU action has reduced the risk related to the use of pesticides.
The auditors interviewed among others staff at threes directorate-general at the European Commission responsible for the policy (agriculture and rural development, health and food safety, and environment) and visited three member states (France, Lithuania and the Netherlands).
Overall, the findings were disappointing. The measures taken by the Commission and the member states were delayed and have been limited.
Several EU member states were late in fully transposing the 2009 directive on sustainable use of pesticides. The Commission launched infringement procedures against Bulgaria and Luxembourg in 2012 but did not check the completeness or correctness of the transposition of the directive by other member states.
The Commission was also late in reporting to the European Parliament on the implementation of the directive. A first report to the parliament was due in November 2014 but delivered only in October 2017. Although the Commission has taken increased action since then, it is still unable to precisely monitor the effects or risks resulting from pesticide use.
There are 487 active substances approved for use in plant protection products but only 16 (3 %) approved as low-risk.
Member states can use agricultural assistance to support organic farming, referred in the directive as “low pesticide-input pest management” but currently the area under organic farming represents only 7 % of total agricultural land.
“An opportunity to properly address this issue was offered by a new Common Agricultural Policy coming into force in 2021, but was unfortunately missed,” said Samo Jereb, ECA member from Slovenia and responsible for the report, at a press briefing in Brussels (5 February).
Only in June 2019 – 10 years after the adoption of the directive – did the Commission start using harmonised risk indicators to estimate the overall use of pesticides in the member states. According to the Commission, the use has been reduced by 20 % but the scientific rational for the weighting in the calculations has been questioned.
Whether any unit at the Commission will be held accountable for the shortcomings is doubtful. Asked by The Brussels Times to explain the non-action of the European Commission, the ECA member replied that this question was outside the audit scope and should therefore be addressed to the Commission.
An explanation could be the Commission’s lack of access to the statistics collected by Eurostat, its own statistical office. The member states transmit figures to Eurostat on each active substance in the pesticides in use but for reasons of confidentiality Eurostat is not allowed to publish detailed statistics. Eurostat is even prevented from sharing the figures with the directorates-general concerned.
“The Commission should define a target on EU level but this requires adequate data,” Samo Jerep said at the briefing. According to ECA, however, it would be an overstatement to say that the Commission has no data. “It knows about the sales of pesticides, though not the actual use.”
Another crucial issue in the report is the implementation of integrated pest management (IPM), which has been made mandatory since 2014 for farmers. IPM means only using pesticides if prevention and other methods fail or are not effective, according to a number of general principles.
However, there are no clear criteria to translate the principles to concrete measures or specific requirements to help ensure enforcement and assess compliance. “We regret that the Commission didn’t accept our recommendation to incorporate measurable IPM criteria into conditionality,” Jerep said at the briefing.
The Brussels Times asked the Commission if it would reconsider its response to this recommendation when drafting its forthcoming biodiversity strategy.
A Commission spokesperson repeated the reply to the report, saying that “it’s primarily the member states’ responsibility to translate IPM general principles into on-farm obligations.”
“The Commission’s legal proposal for a future CAP already includes those general IPM principles corresponding to requirements that are measurable and which can be checked at farm level, allowing member states to include the relevant on-farm obligations (e.g. crop rotation) into conditionality.”
According to the Commission, the enhanced conditionality of CAP payments will include, apart from the basic legislative rules for using pesticides already included, all relevant elements of the directive on sustainable use of pesticides, including the implementation of IPM.
The Brussels Times