Written by Lieve Van Woensel with Marcos Fernández Álvarez,

‘The ambitious reduction targets for plant protection products in the European Green Deal and, hence, the Farm to Fork Strategy must be underpinned by in-depth scientific studies, carefully evaluating the impact not only on sustainability, but also on efficiency and potential offsets. I am convinced that the future of Europe’s sustainable food production lies in the deployment of new scientific and mechanical practices, as outlined in this study. Sound scientific research and innovation must be the basis for our decision-making, to enable a truly successful transformation towards an even more sustainable European food sector.’

Herbert Dorfmann, (EPP, Italy) Member of the European Parliament and STOA Panel member

©WUR-STOA

The European Parliament, together with the European Commission and the Council of the European Union (EU), is shaping the future of agriculture in the EU. In this context, the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) organised a workshop on farming without plant protection products in March 2019. This followed the publication of STOA’s studies on precision agriculture, (2016) and on plant breeding and innovative agriculture (2013).

STOA’s latest foresight study, ‘The future of crop protection in the EU‘, examines the environmental, societal, health and economic impact of deploying new crop protection practices in the EU. The study was presented to the STOA Panel on 4 December 2020, with Herbert Dorfmann as Lead Panel Member.

Plant protection products (PPPs): balancing efficiency and sustainability

The world’s population is expected to reach 11 billion by the end of the century. To feed ever growing numbers of people, agricultural production needs to change. Reducing food waste and shifting to more environmentally sustainable diets can make a big difference, but there is still pressure to increase agricultural production.

While PPPs could help increase agricultural production, conventional PPPs are mostly synthetic chemicals, and concerns are often raised about their impact on human health and biodiversity. In 2020, the European Parliament welcomed the EU’s commitment to achieving sustainability in agriculture. There is thus a clear demand for new practices to supplement chemical PPPs.

The dual environmental impact of PPPs is highlighted in a previous STOA publication, linked to the above-mentioned workshop. PPPs damage biodiversity, but to a lesser extent than converting natural ecosystems into farmland. This study argues that new crop protection practices need to be as effective as chemical PPPs. If not, the demand for more farmland could offset any direct environmental benefit.

Crop protection policy: systemic challenges

STOA’s new study on crop protection underlines that effective crop protection policy requires a systems perspective. Crop protection is part of a production process that spans from farms to international supply chains. To avoid undesired side effects, impacts must be weighed up against all common agricultural policy (CAP) and European Green Deal objectives. For example, passing very restrictive policies could decrease the use of chemical PPPs, but also reduce yields and trigger land conversion into farmland.

The potential extra cost of less harmful practices will not be limited to farmers. Farmers choose the most cost-effective methods, and will pass on extra costs to retailers and customers. Besides, policies must ensure a fair income for farmers – one of the objectives of the CAP.

International trade also poses challenges. Phytosanitary policy demands that no living organisms be present in plants or plant-product exports, limiting crop protection options. Environmental and trade regulations must also be balanced, so that EU producers are not disadvantaged. This would violate the CAP objectives, and the EU would merely export this environmental damage.

Anticipatory policy-making

According to STOA’s study, retaining the current legislative framework will likely result in little progress. Crop protection will largely rely on current PPPs, and damage to the environment and biodiversity will continue. The competitiveness of EU farmers will decline, as external producers innovate and improve their processes.

However, the EU can act to prevent this scenario. The authors present an overview of novel crop protection practices and their impacts. Precision agriculture, new plant breeding techniques, biocontrol methods, induced resistance, diversified crops, and enhanced mechanical practices are discussed. Ultimately, reducing the use of PPPs may require combining many of these techniques.

Precision agriculture is likely to be a key element of future farming. To make the most of its potential, the EU could invest in training its workforce. Promoting automated data collection on pests, diseases and weeds would allow optimal crop protection strategies – and adequate standards would facilitate data exchanges throughout the food chain.

The EU could remove legislative barriers to new breeding techniques. Lead Panel Member Herbert Dorfmann raised the need to update the GMO Directive. This follows the same direction as the opinion expressed by the EU Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors in November 2018. The authors agree that adjusting regulations from a process-based to a product-based approach would unleash the potential of innovative breeding techniques in the EU.

At the end of the presentation, Members took the view that further information is required on the costs of the crop protection options. STOA Chair, Eva Kaili (S&D, Greece), emphasised that the cost quantification analysis should account for regional differences in the EU. Look out for the follow-up study and other updates on the STOA blog.

The STOA Options Brief linked to the study contains an overview of various policy options. Read the full report to find out more, and let us know what you think via stoa@europarl.europa.eu.