“Without pesticide reduction, there is a risk of a food crisis”

Dutchman Frans Timmermans (61) has been EU Commissioner for Climate Protection since 2019. Previously, the social democrat was, among other things, foreign minister of his home country.

Mr Timmermans, on Wednesday you presented your draft of the long-awaited pesticide regulation. Worried about your green strategy?
At the moment we are in a very difficult situation due to the war in Ukraine. The war poses enormous risks to food security in parts of Africa and the Middle East. But if we were to suspend the farm-to-fork strategy because of these issues, it could destroy the health and viability of our agricultural sector in the long term – and that’s based on very short-term considerations.

So you maintain that now is the right time to set binding targets for reducing pesticide and fertilizer use, thereby obliging farmers to change the way they farm?
When will companies be required to do this? Not tomorrow, not this year and not next year. Our perspective is 2030, 2040, 2050. If we don’t defend this perspective now: what will the business model of farmers be like in the future? Can they continue to use as much pesticides as they do today? We cannot afford to postpone this reform.

We must take action to solve the real and urgent problems facing agriculture. But the actions we are taking must not undermine our long-term vision of a healthy and sustainable agricultural sector. You know, I’ve been at this for 30 years. Whenever we propose something in the agricultural field, the reaction is the same: ‘postpone, derogation, not for us, for someone else’.

70% of soil in the EU is now in an unhealthy state, and 80% of that soil is agricultural land or grassland. These are scientific facts. This poses a greater threat to our long-term food security than the conflict in Ukraine, since 75 percent of the world’s most important food crops depend on animal pollination. In Europe, five billion euros a year are directly dependent on animal pollination. Please let us separate the immediate crisis from the long-term adjustment we need.

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The regulation proposes a 50 percent reduction in the use of pesticides in Europe by 2030 and introduces binding national reduction targets. Why are they necessary?
Well, we need binding targets, because we’ve tried non-binding targets before and they didn’t get us anywhere. Binding targets give security to industry and the agricultural sector. By the way: Our citizens are pushing us to do this. The recognition that ecocide poses an imminent threat to us is great and growing.

Referring to the “war emergency crisis”, your commission’s agriculture department wants to allow more agriculture in “ecological priority areas”, give the green light for the use of pesticides and remove the obligation to crop rotation. How does that fit with avoiding ecocide?
Any deviation from the long-term strategy should only apply to immediate problems and emergencies. The right treatment comes only after the right diagnosis. The problem is that you can’t get the grain and corn from Ukraine and Russia to Africa and the Middle East. That’s what we need to focus our efforts on.

The latest plan is to build silos to get the transport started. For this we have to use international instruments, especially the World Food Program, to get enough money and projects for Africa. That is our immediate priority. For me it makes no sense to use protected areas to produce even more raw materials. By the way, another effect of this crisis and the unbelievable prices for fertilizers is that organic farming has become more profitable because it does not need Russian gas to produce fertilizers.

The EU Commission wants to set binding targets for reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers.Photo: dpa

They face strong pressure from the agricultural industry. How do you deal with these concerns?
The central question is how can society as a whole be included in this debate. If we limit the discussion to the group of those who have very clear interests, then of course the debate looks different. We are on the verge of a change. For the past 30 to 40 years, the Common Agricultural Policy has been something for the initiated. And now you see our citizens waking up like they woke up to the climate crisis.

We have to prove to the agricultural community that there is a win for them here. The young farmers get it, they really get it. And they want to be a part of it. The agricultural community is not a monolith on this issue. But of course the agro-industrial complex is mobilized and a very, very confrontational debate ensues, like the ones I have with you all the time.

I have never personally attacked anyone from Copa-Cogeca, but the President of Copa-Cogeca makes it a point to constantly attack me personally. I wonder why she is so aggressive towards me. Is it because I’m right? Could that be the reason?

The EU Commission spends very little money on programs that support changes in the traditional agricultural model. Why is that?
That’s like trying to get the world’s largest oil tanker to change course. This will need time. The only thing I have to do right away is prevent us from going back to the old course, even if there are corrections now. The point you raise is extremely valid. If you look at the total budget of the common agricultural policy and then look at what is being spent on development in the right direction, that is a very small part of the total budget. We have to change that.

But a change of course has an immediate impact on a great many farms in the European Union. You have to get them on board. The stakeholders lead them to believe that what we do will cost farmers their livelihoods. I, on the other hand, am deeply convinced that if we do not do what we are proposing, in 10 to 15 years the biodiversity problems will be so serious that farming in Europe will no longer be sustainable. Then we really will have a food crisis in Europe.

The interview was conducted by Eurydice Bersi and Maria Maggiore from Investigate Europe. The team of investigative journalists from eleven countries jointly research topics of European importance. Investigate Europe’s research, “Silent Death: Europe’s Pesticide Problem and Species Extinction,” will be published by the Tagesspiegel with media partners across Europe over the weekend.

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