EU pesticide bans: what are the impacts and are they necessary?

While the European Commission has shelved a target to halve pesticide use, the decision follows bans on a range of treatments already in place. Eve Thomas reports.

Is the sun setting for European pesticide use? Credit: Fotokostic / Shutterstock

As farmer anger continues to rage across the European continent, the question of pesticides has been thrust into the limelight. 

The European Commission announced earlier this month it would shelve its plans to cut pesticide use by 50% compared to the 2015-2017 average, a target established by the Sustainable Use Regulations (SUR) proposal, made under the Green Deal, and part of Brussels’ Farm to Fork strategy.

The move followed protests by farmers across Europe – including in Belgium, France, Greece, Germany, Portugal and Poland – which prompted a statement by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that farmers should “remain in the driving seat”.

Resentment towards the EU’s green strategies has been growing. In the UK, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has stated it “has long held the view that the EU has an overly precautionary approach to pesticides that is damaging agricultural and horticultural competitiveness and production”.

That view is echoed by European farm and agriculture body Copa-Cogeca, which responded to the shelving of the SUR target on pesticides, stating the Farm to Fork strategy has been “poorly designed, poorly evaluated, poorly financed and offered little alternatives to farmers”.

The pesticide bans

Nevertheless, the EU has prohibited or stopped approving pesticides it deems to be unsafe. In 2018, this included three neonicotinoids (midacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin), followed by a fourth (thiacloprid) in 2020. 

In 2019 it banned chlorpyrifos, which was found to damage children’s brains, and in 2020 it banned mancozeb, which is toxic to foetuses. More recently, in 2024, it announced that it would not be renewing dimethomorph or mepanipyrim. 

EU-funded Agrinfo explained that the decision not to renew dimethomorph was because of “concerns about dimethomorph’s toxicity to reproduction and its endocrine disruption properties in humans and mammals.” 

Meanwhile, mepanipyrim raised “concerns about long-term risks for wild mammals and the substance’s endocrine disrupting properties for humans and mammals.” 

Several crops could be under threat as a result of these non-renewals. Dimethomorph is currently used on goods including oranges, grapes, strawberries, papayas, potatoes and radishes, among others, while mepanipyrim is involved in the farming of grapes, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplants, cucumbers and courgettes. 

The potential impact on yield

A 2023 study published in Nature Food considered research into the likely impacts of the now-shelved reduction in pesticides associated with SUR, assuming a full 50% reduction in pesticide use across all EU Member States. 

It noted: “Country-specific expert elicitations suggested yield reductions of 5% (France) to 10% (Germany) for wheat, 10% (Germany) to 13% (Poland) for rapeseed, 3% (France) to 15% (Germany) for sugar beets, 0% (France) to 4% (Romania) for maize, 8% (Italy) to 20% (Poland) for apples, 20% (Italy and Spain) for tomatoes and 13% (Spain) to 30% (Italy) for olives … If countries across the globe were to adopt various Green Deal targets, estimates suggest a 12% reduction in agricultural yields.” 

Although the 50% reduction target is no longer on the cards (at least imminently), the banning and non-renewal of pesticides will continue to have an impact on yield, as crops are left more vulnerable to disease. 

Case in point: bomba (paella) rice

The bans have raised questions about the impact on crop yields, and some cases have already proved to be cause for concern. One such affected crop is bomba rice, which was previously grown with the aid of the fungicide tricyclazole. 

Tricyclazole came under EU scrutiny in 2016 ahead of the Commission’s 2018 decision to stop authorising the pesticide, which it ruled to be potentially harmful to humans. The fungicide was heavily relied upon by Spanish rice farmers, who used it to manage Pyricularia oryzae (which causes rice blast diseases) in crops. On average, the disease causes losses of between 10% and 30%, with losses of up to 100% having been reported on extreme occasions.  

Of the crops at risk of the disease is the bomba rice crop, commonly used in the Spanish national dish paella. 

EU production of rice has decreased – with some reports indicating that the pyrycularia fungus wiped out 50%–70% of crops on some farms in 2022. Decreasing production has contributed to the doubling price tag of the product over a three-year period, which now sells for more than £4 ($5.39) a kilo at several retailers.

Potential future case: sugar beet

Sugar beet – used in the production of both sugar and animal feed – has already seen the effects of the banning of neonicotinoid-coated seeds. However, derogations in several countries have limited the impact of the ban so far. 

This is set to change. in February 2023, the European Court of Justice ruled that EU national authorities could no longer grant derogations on the emergency use of seeds coated in imidacloprid, clothianidin or thiamethoxam. 

GlobalData analyst John Adams explains: “Some member states have provided derogations over the past few years, but the ban on neonic coated seed will come into full force across the EU for this year’s crop (2024/25). This could potentially have a huge impact on yields – they fell by as much as 25-30% in France when neonic-coated seeds were banned in 2020/21.” 

“Farmers in most EU member states will still be entitled to use a limited number of neonic sprays, with the notable exception of France. But this all comes at additional cost to farmers. Ultimately, the ECJ ruling makes beet a riskier crop to grow.” 

Other crops have also been historically reliant on neonicotinoid-coated seeds, and are therefore likely to be impacted by the ban. They include soybeans, corn, cotton, sunflowers, potatoes and several vegetables.

Should farmers continue using pesticides?

Pesticides have become a hugely controversial issue across Europe. In 2023, 1.1 million Europeans demanded an end to pesticides as part of a European Citizens’ Initiative alliance aiming to save bees while protecting the livelihoods of farmers. The alliance asked “for support for farmers to work with nature” but the demands were rejected when the EU Parliament voted against a legal proposal to reduce pesticides in November 2023. 

Pesticides including neonicotinoid-coated seeds pose dangers to wildlife. Dr Stoner found that “in addition to affecting honey bees and native bees, neonicotinoids applied as seed treatments may also affect other beneficial insects and contaminate groundwater, streams and wetlands. Treated seeds are also attractive to birds, and the amount of neonicotinoid on one treated corn kernel is enough to kill a songbird.” 

Alongside significant concern about the impact of pesticides on local wildlife, there are also concerns about public health. Across five European countries between 2014 and 2021, the European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU) conducted a large-scale biomonitoring survey in adults and children. It identified a total of 46 pesticides and their metabolites, with 84% of samples showing at least two pesticides present. Levels were consistently higher in children. 

However, the impact of pesticides on yield poses a significant question, both for food production and for European famers’ livelihoods. 

“A lot of this debate comes down to the fact that there is a trade-off between ‘productivity’ and ‘protecting the environment’ which very few of us are willing to acknowledge,” says GlobalData analyst Aaron Hanson. “Put simply, you achieve higher yields by squeezing the life out of nature – and so if you want to ‘protect nature’ by banning pesticides and/or leaving the edges of fields fallow – there will be less food produced which means it will cost more. 

“Currently, governments and consumers want farmers to be nice to nature but don’t want to see higher food prices, which at some level is inconsistent, and farmers get the short straw – they’re told to increase their costs but we don’t want to help them foot the bill.”