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Daily News Blog

26
May

EU Proposes 2030 Goal to Reduce Pesticide Use by 50% and Increase Arable Land in Organic Production by At Least 17%

(Beyond Pesticides, May 26, 2020) Across the pond, the European Commission (EC) has announced plans to protect biodiversity and build a more sustainable food system, and identified the reduction of pesticide use  and the expansion of organic agriculture as pillars of the scheme. The EC expects that the initiative, which will require EU member states’ endorsement, will advance progress on the EU goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, given that 10% of emissions arise from the agricultural sector. The EC’s goals are important and laudable, but Beyond Pesticides is clear: reduction of pesticide use in service of them is not an adequate strategy to ensure long-term success. Genuine success requires the elimination of the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and other toxic inputs, and the transition to agricultural and land management systems that work with nature, rather than fight against it. Regenerative, organic practices are the path to a livable future, according to Beyond Pesticides.

The EC, which is the executive branch of the EU, expects its plan to reduce use of pesticides by 50% by 2030; reduce use of antimicrobial chemicals, including antibiotics, in fish and animal farming by 50%; dedicate a minimum of 25% of arable land area to organic production (as opposed to the current 8%); and plant an additional 3 billion trees by 2030.

The rationale for the initiative is both environmental and economic. On the former, EC Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides commented, “Nature is vital for our physical and mental wellbeing, it filters our air and water, it regulates the climate and it pollinates our crops. But we are acting as if it didn’t matter, and losing it at an unprecedented rate.” The EC also believes that the transition to organic production for a larger proportion of the agricultural sector will help the EU recover from the impacts of the novel Coronavirus pandemic, generate 10–20% more jobs per hectare than conventional farming, and create more than 1.8 trillion euros in new economic value.

An EC case statement on the environment–economy interplay includes this summary: “The economic and social costs of inaction on environmental and climate issues would be huge, leading to frequent severe weather events and natural disasters, as well as reducing the average EU GDP by up to 2% and by even more in some parts of the EU. The world lost an estimated 3.5–18.5 trillion euros per year in ecosystem services from 1997 to 2011, owing to land-cover change, and an estimated 5.5–10.5 trillion euros per year from land degradation.”

Greenpeace EU is critical of the plan because it fails to commit to reductions in the production and consumption of meat. Livestock farming is a significant contributor to global warming emissions, and is often a source of pollution of waterways. Greenpeace EU agricultural policy direct Marco Contiero noted, “The European Commission has finally accepted the science and recognises that producing and consuming too much meat is hurting health, destroying nature and driving climate breakdown, but chooses to do nothing about it. . . . The Commission seems to be too cowardly even to end the few million going to EU-funded meat advertising, let alone reconsider the billions that support overproduction of meat in the first place.” The organization notes that the EC devoted 5 million euros to advertising of beef and veal in 2020, and that the “EU spends . . . 28 to 32 billion euros annually on livestock and feed production, while over 70% of all EU agricultural land is dedicated to feeding livestock.”

The role of conventional agriculture in the climate crisis is significant. Here in the U.S., agriculture contributed 10.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in 2018; much of that came from conventional livestock farming. A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report for 1990–2013, for example, indicated that 66% of agricultural sector emissions were emitted by livestock, primarily as methane — a GHG “on steroids,” with 90–95 times the heat-trapping impacts of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years. In the past few years, beef cattle alone have been responsible for 62% of agricultural emissions in the U.S. A huge 30% of the Earth’s ice-free land mass is used to pasture livestock.

Yet livestock farming and ranching are not the only agricultural culprits in warming the planet, compromising human health, polluting ecosystems, destroying habitat, and fouling air, soil, and water — all of which impact food systems and biodiversity. Practices that dominate in conventional farming and land management are chemically intensive, using pesticides (insecticides, fungicides, herbicides), antibiotics, and synthetic fertilizers — many of which are petrochemically derived. The negative impacts of these compounds are rife:

Adding to the insidious dynamics of pesticide use is the inevitable development of resistance: as Beyond Pesticides wrote in its journal, Pesticides and You, “Broadscale and repeated use of a pesticide sets in motion the factors that drive the evolution of resistance in the target pest. Those that are not killed by the pesticide pass down the genes that allowed them to survive, perpetuating a toxic cycle.” A 2019 Daily News Blog entry describes the “pesticide–resistance dance” well: “When a target weed develops resistance to an herbicide, conventional agriculture responds — thanks to the chemical industry and its aggressive marketing and near hegemony on some seeds, such as soybeans — by using yet another herbicide, or doubling down with paired herbicides, or rolling out an herbicide-plus-GE-seed combination to try to stave off the pest. This ‘resistance and response’ dynamic is a unidirectional progression along an increasingly poisonous and unsustainable path.”

Response to resistance from the pesticide industry, as noted, often includes more drastic approaches: combining active ingredients (with poor regulatory control) into “new” products; developing new formulations (to which pests or weeds will also develop resistance in time); and/or increasing potency (and typically, toxicity) of a product. In addition, agro-chemical companies have engaged in all sorts of chicanery to convince growers, government, and the public that their products are safe and effective; tactics have included greenwashing, intensive lobbying, paying for “positive” research, discrediting critics, and more. (See Beyond Pesticides’ coverage of, for example, the “Monsanto Papers.”)

On an analogous front, Beyond Pesticides recently brought suit against Exxon Mobil Corporation for “false and deceptive marketing” that implies that the company invests heavily in the production and use of “clean energy” and “environmentally beneficial technology.” The truth is that “the vast majority of Exxon’s business continues to be in the production and use of petroleum, natural gas, and petrochemicals, including pesticides. These activities are significant contributors to the climate crisis and the decline of pollinators and biodiversity, threatening the viability of biological systems that sustain life.” The complaint adds, “In an age where consumers are looking to support responsible companies that are . . . transitioning away from fossil fuel-based energy and chemical products, ‘ExxonMobil is able to capture the growing market of consumers.’”

Beyond Pesticides considers this a monumental example of “deception via greenwashing” that underscores why “reducing” use of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides is a fool’s errand: industry will do anything it can manage to convince everyone that their activities are not destroying the climate and environment. All of these factors underscore why piecemeal or “reductionist” approaches to agriculture and land management generally are doomed to fail or to deliver anemic results that do not address health, climate, biodiversity, and food systems issues at the level the problems require.

Executive Director Jay Feldman commented: “We cannot afford to be misled by corporations that are tinkering with solutions to the environmental crises of climate change and biodiversity devastation, which threaten our future over an ever-shortening time horizon. Overselling half-hearted attempts to solve these environmental crises head-on is doing dramatic damage to the large scale and meaningful changes that must take place now.”

Meaningful solutions must involve systemic changes to how land is managed and agricultural activities conducted. The dominant, conventional approaches to management (including integrated pest management, pesticide reduction programs, or product substitution strategies) continue to depend on synthetic inputs (pesticides and fertilizers, primarily) that attempt to treat symptoms of underlying problems. In these approaches, soil is considered to be little more than an “emptry matrix” into which inputs can be poured, plants grown and harvested, and the process of “rinse, repeat” continued each year. This is the antithesis of approaches that mimic and cooperate with natural systems. Regenerative, organic systems are based in an understanding of ecosystems, in which all parts must function well together for optimal results. Soil is respected and treated as a living ecosystem of components that, together, support and enhance biological life.

Successful organic agricultural practices — for the long term — support and enhance natural nutrient cycling with soil supplements such as compost. The focus is on building organic matter in soil and feeding the multitude of biological organisms in the soil — fungi, bacteria, et al. — that decompose organic matter into the nutrients that feed plants. Other management strategies, beyond “no use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides,” include: integrated animal and other composted fertilizers; crop rotation; low-till soil disturbance; cover crops; intercropping (because nature abhors monocrops, which are “free candy” to pest invasions); companion and succession planting; silvopasturing and targeted livestock grazing; more manual (rather than chemical) weed control; and others, as set out by USDA organic standards. In organic turf management, strategies might include aeration, overseeding, dethatching, compost applications, higher mowing height, among others. Organic methods are successfully and economically used in managing lawns, parks, and playing fields across the country.

Use of such techniques in agriculture, as is required under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and USDA Organic Certification, yields increased plant resiliency, decreased pest issues, reduced water use, and elimination of toxic pesticide compounds in soil, air, water, and human food — all of which improve ecosystem functioning and human health. Critically, these techniques also address biodiversity and climate issues. Absent pesticide impacts, organisms and their ecosystems will be vastly healthier and able to provide important environmental services. Organic, regenerative approaches also help significantly to drawn down and store atmospheric carbon in the soil (where it benefits soil ecology and crops); this is sometimes called “carbon farming” because the impact is so compelling. To ensure these benefits, strong, clear standards for organic, regenerative production — and the Certified Organic label — are paramount.

Halfway measures will not achieve the imperative redress of our current and significant environmental and climate woes. As Beyond Pesticides does, the EU and EC should be pursuing the adoption of organic, regenerative land management systems, and working with farmers, consumers, landscapers, other advocates, and communities to expedite a transition to these systems. The benefits are substantial in addressing climate, health, food-system integrity, biodiversity, and a host of other problems caused by chemical approaches to our agroeconomies. Learn more about how to advocate for these changes in local communities here.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/05/20/business/ap-eu-europe-agriculture.html

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