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Analysis: Pesticides are creating a biodiversity crisis in Europe

The Broadbalk was stablished to test the effects of various combinations of inorganic fertilizers and organic manures on the yield of winter wheat. Credit: Investigate Europe.

  • We are in a biodiversity crisis with insects particularly in trouble. Insects that were once commonplace just a few decades ago are today a rare sight.
  • After climate change, industrial-scale agriculture, with its heavy reliance on pesticides, must take much of the blame. One obvious solution is to make farming more sustainable.
  • The EU had a plan – its Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy – that includes a new regulation to halve pesticide use by 2030. Then came the war in Ukraine, and with fears over food security politicians started to lose their nerve.
  • Investigate Europe explored what happens when plans for sweeping reform come up against mighty business interests.

Travelling by train from central London, it doesn’t take long before the city gives way to a patchwork of mostly agricultural fields. But one of these fields is special. The Broadbalk field – part of the Rothamsted Estate – is the site of some of the oldest agricultural research experiments in the world.

It was here that in 1843 the first wheat seeds were planted by estate owner John Bennet Lawes and his scientific collaborator, chemist Joseph Henry Gilbert. With that wheat, they were also planting the seeds of modern scientific agriculture. The various plots of the Broadbalk experiment have been subject to different farming techniques since its inception, with some plots still managed as they were in the 19th century, allowing scientist to study the effects of herbicides, fertilisers and pesticides, ‘in-puts’ in agricultural parlance. Rothamsted’s scientists are working to find more sustainable ways of farming that minimise pesticide use and promote biodiversity.

The Rothamsted Insect Survey doesn’t go back quite so far, traps for moths and night-flying insects “useful sentinels of environmental change” date from 1943 and are “used as a proxy for general biodiversity study,” Dr James Bell, who oversees the project, tells IE.

Data from these traps – there are around 70 throughout the UK – have shown moths have declined by a third in this time. How much of this is down to pesticide use or other factors is difficult to say, according to Dr Bell, but “it is definitely not the case that insecticides promote moth numbers. It’s a question then how much it’s causing the decline.”

Data collected from moth traps have shown that two thirds of the UK’s common larger moth species have seen significant decline. Credit: Investigate Europe.

Our current agricultural system, with its monocultures and close crop rotation relies on pesticides to control the weeds and crop damaging insects that single crops are so vulnerable to, and fertilizers that make close crop rotation possible.

These practices increase crop yields, but at a high price to the environment. A recent Chatham House report identified the global food system as the primary driver of biodiversity loss, spurred by the use of “fertilizer, pesticides, energy, land and water, and on unsustainable practices such as monocropping and heavy tilling”.

A 2019 study found more than 40% of insect species globally were in decline, with industrial agriculture and pesticide use major drivers. The University of Wurzburg noted in its 2021 research that biodiversity in agricultural landscapes is alarmingly on the decline. The fall in pollinators is particularly concerning with even SwissRe, the world’s biggest reinsurance company warning that “the multibillion dollar agriculture industry is at risk” due to the decline of pollinators with the heavy use of chemicals a contributing factor. On a grassroots level, the Save the Bees campaign has mobilised a million-plus Europeans to call for the phasing out of synthetic pesticides.

“You can argue about exactly how fast it is, and whether it is faster in some countries than in others. But the overall pattern is self-evident,” says Dave Goulson, author and professor of biology at Sussex University. Biodiversity collapse, combined with climate change, he says, will “greatly reduce the standard of living for future generations if we don’t do something about it very quickly”.

Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex. He specializes in the ecology and conservation of insects. Credit: Dave Goulson.

Agricultural sustainability is now high on the EU agenda. Industrial food production is “one of the main key drivers of climate change and environmental degradation”, the EU Commission said when it adopted its ambitious Farm to Fork (F2F) programme in 2020, including regulatory plans for a 50% reduction in pesticide use by 2030.

Then in March 2022 came the war in Ukraine. Chemical and agricultural lobbyists went on the offensive, arguing, with growing support from several member states, that the disrupted supply chain means a food crisis is already looming and that now is not the time for regulation. This has left many worried that short-term concerns about keeping food on Europe’s table are being used and exaggerated to continue with ‘business as usual’, failing to address the long-term threat of pesticides.

“For us it is clear,” says Ariel Brunner, head of EU policy at Bird Life International. “We have science on one side and the money machine on the other.”

This ‘money machine’ traces its origins back to the ‘green revolution’ that started in the west after the second world war and peaked in the 1960s. The introduction of new technology that included monocultures of high-yield crop varieties and the widespread use of chemicals. It was against this backdrop that in 1962, the US biologist Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring that documented the environmental harm caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. The chemical industry called her an hysterical woman, did their best to discredit her work and tried to get the book banned. Monsanto even released a counter-narrative, The Desolate Year, describing a world without pesticides where insects and vermin run amok, brining famine and disease.

But Carson never advocated for a complete ban on pesticides, instead she called for their use to be limited to only when essential. But here lies the problem and the reason why the industry’s business model is now under threat. It takes time and money to create new pesticides – 2018 estimates by the research firm Philipps McDougal found the average development and registration costs of a new active substance have almost doubled in 20 years, from $152m in 1995 to $286m by 2014.

This is already putting a dent in company profits, and policies that limit pesticide use will only exacerbate this further. With a close eye on their balance sheets, Europe’s agricultural lobbyists have been working frantically to water down planned EU policies on pesticide reduction and data collection.

The EU umbrella group Copa-Cocega represents farmers and works closely with the lobby organisation CropLife. CropLife counts amongst its members the German companies BASF and Bayer, Swiss-based and now Chinese-owned Syngenta and the US chemical giant Corteva. Combined, these four companies control two-thirds of the global pesticide market worth €52bn annually, of which, in 2019, €12bn came from Europe.

A soy producer uses a light aircraft to spray a field with pesticides in Brazil. Image © Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace.

The F2F policy has become a prime target for lobbyists. With access to hundreds of internal documents Corporate Europe Observatory has examined the tactics used, which they say “range from scaremongering with ‘impact studies’, mobilising third countries (notably the US) to put pressure on the EU, to distracting decision makers with voluntary commitments or other false solutions”.

Publicly they speak favourably about the strategy. “We support the principles,” Pekka Pesonen, Secretary General of Copa-Cocega told IE. But the reality is that they are doing everything possible to stymie new binding regulation to slash Europe’s pesticide use.

A 2021 presentation by Copa-Cocega’s PR strategistsshows how they planned to undermine regulatory efforts. By using studies from pro-industry scientists and with the support of the US Department of Agriculture, showing how the F2F programme supposedly jeopardises “strategic EU interests in the areas of food security, competitiveness and farmers’ incomes” they would create uncertainty around the strategy and weaken the resolve of parliamentarians for its implementation.

The US Department of Agriculture has been a close ally of CropLife and Copa-Cocega in trying to curtail EU policies. In 2020 they published a report projecting a dramatic fall in yield and exports from Europe if the F2F targets were implemented. An author of the report, Jayson Beckman, subsequently reiterated the findings in a hearing in the European Parliament.

But Frans Timmermans, EU Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal is determined to push ahead with the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation, which was unveiled in Brussels last month. “Without pesticides reduction, we will have a food crisis in Europe”, he told IE in an interview. He distanced himself from the “very, very confrontational debate” driven by the “agro-industrial complex” and said: “Let us not use the war to go back to the agriculture of the past.”

The short-term advantage of industrial agriculture is that while world population has increased, so has food production. Since the 1960s, average global yields have more than doubled (from 2.5 tonnes per hectare to 6.5 tonnes per hectare). But the agro-industrial model has not been able to ‘feed the world’ in the sense of eradicating hunger. Instead it has caused widespread harm, destroying huge swathes of forests and natural habitats relied upon by communities and wildlife for survival.

Food insecurity is still a problem for 40% of the global population – of whom most are farmers, according to French NGO Le Basic, which aims to pinpoint unsustainable models and show alternatives. A June report by the charity Foodwatch describes a self-reinforcing cycle of pesticide use, creating fragile agricultural production systems that further increase dependence from which farmers cannot escape.

The safe application of pesticides is critical to protecting public health. Photo by Eric Akaoka Flickr Creative Commons

Farmers across Europe told IE a similar story: pesticides are necessary for survival. In Spain’s western Extremadura region, where the vast Guadiana River is riddled with pesticide contamination, tomato and maize farmer Ildefonso Cabanaillas said farming was now impossible without chemicals. Even with them, which he said is becoming increasingly costly, business is worse each year. “The word profit in agriculture no longer exists,” he said.

According to Dave Goulson there are ways to reduce the need for pesticides, but this requires knowledge that farmers don’t necessarily have. “At the moment we have a farming system where most of the advice given to farmers is given to them by agronomists who work for pesticide companies,” he said. “Not surprisingly, they see pesticides as the first solution to any problem they have, often the only solution.”

But there are alternatives – integrated pest management (IPM) is one such solution, it involves using resistant varieties, rotating crops, tracking plots, and encouraging natural enemies. Resistant crop varieties and bio-control – using a predator species or biological agent – to control pests can also be part of a solution, while some farmers are turning to organic farming. Others believe technology can help. The UK-based Small Robot Company has robots using artificial intelligence to monitor, treat and plant crops autonomously.

But the solution could be a simple as cutting down on waste. Goulson describes the current farming system as “staggeringly inefficient”. “[Globally] we grow three times as many calories, very roughly, as we require to feed everybody,” he explains. “But about a third of that food goes to waste, and a third of it gets fed to animals.” Claims about food shortages are misleading. The problem is not the quantity of food, says Greek MEP Petros Kokkalis, but the access to and price of quality food, as well as the fact that 30% of production is wasted.”

What’s clear is the food system in Europe is broken and the Farm to Fork strategy is a first step towards trying to fix it. While its effectiveness remains to be seen, the landmark pesticides law could be a powerful tool in halting the biodiversity crisis in Europe.

When presenting the draft proposal that, if passed, will oblige EU states to halve pesticide use by 2030, Timmermans went straight to the point: “Using the war in Ukraine to water down proposals and scare Europeans into believing sustainability means less food is frankly quite irresponsible because the climate and biodiversity crises are staring us in the face.”


Investigate Europe is a team of investigative journalists from eleven countries that jointly research topics of European relevance and publishes the results in media outlets across Europe. In addition to Mongabay, media partners of this publication include Der Tagesspiegel (Germany), Telex (Hungary), EfSyn (Greece), Público (Portugal), Il Fatto Quotidiano (Italy), infoLibre (Spain), (Poland), Dagsavisen (Norway), Der Standard (Austria).

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Banner image: The Broadbalk was stablished to test the effects of various combinations of inorganic fertilizers and organic manures on the yield of winter wheat. Credit: Investigate Europe.

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