Pesticide sales

Briefing Published 30 Nov 2017 Last modified 19 Mar 2018
19 min read
Pesticide sales


EU indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook of the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Total sales of pesticides

Yellow triangle: stable or unclear trend

The use of plant protection products does not have any harmful effects on human health or unacceptable influence on the environment, and such products are used sustainably — 7th EAP

Stable or unclear trend

The selected indicator does not allow, at present, for an evaluation of progress towards the 2020 objective. Rather, the analysis serves to highlight gaps in the knowledge base for assessing progress towards this objective

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2017


The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) sets the objective that by 2020 the use of plant protection products does not have any harmful effects on human health or unacceptable influence on the environment, and such products should be used sustainably. Total reported sales of pesticides in the EU stayed relatively constant between 2011 and 2015. The quantity of pesticides sold on the EU market may — to some extent — be linked to exposure to pesticides, but cannot be directly equated to a level of risk to human health and the environment. Other factors, including the hazardous properties of pesticides and associated use patterns, play a significant role in determining these risks. It is, therefore, not possible to draw a firm conclusion on whether or not the 2020 goal will be reached on the basis of this evidence. Rather, the briefing serves to highlight gaps in the evidence base regarding the harmful effects of plant protection products on human health and the environment. It is, nevertheless, disconcerting that total reported pesticides sales — including the shares of the main pesticide groups — remained relatively stable over the period examined.

Setting the scene

The 7th EAP (EU, 2013a) sets the objective, that by 2020 the use of plant protection products should not have any harmful effects on human health or unacceptable influence on the environment, and that such products should be used sustainably.

Pesticide (or plant protection product) use plays an important role in agricultural production by keeping plants healthy and preventing their destruction by disease and infestation. However, pesticides applied to crops can enter soil and surface waters via leaching and run-off, and can enter groundwater, with the risk of negatively affecting non-target species in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This impacts habitat function and contributes to biodiversity loss, including large reductions of insect populations (Ewald, 2015 and Hallmann, 2017).[1] This reduces the quality of ecosystem services, such as insect-mediated pollination, soil formation and composition, and the provision of clean drinking water. Pesticide residues in food may also pose a risk for human health (Bjørling-Poulsen et al., 2008), while residues in animal feed pose risks to animal health and can enter the food chain. Particular concerns have been raised regarding the health impacts of human exposure to pesticides with endocrine-disrupting properties (Mnif et al., 2011) and the associated costs to human health (Trasande et al., 2015. ).[2] Other human health concerns relate to the neurotoxicity of e.g. insecticides and biocides, which can affect the brain function, particularly if exposure occurs during foetal development (Bjørling-Poulsen et al., 2008).

Policy targets and progress

Adopted in 2009, the Directive on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (EU, 2009a) aims to reduce impacts on human health and the environment. To this end, Member States established National Action Plans including quantitative objectives, targets, measures and timetables. These plans should promote low-pesticide-input pest management and non-chemical methods, including both integrated pest management and organic farming. With the aim of protecting the aquatic environment and drinking water, Member States should adopt measures to minimise off-site pollution from spray drift, drain flow and run off. These include establishing buffer zones to separate the usage or storage of pesticides from rivers, lakes and waterways, in particular those used for drinking water abstraction. The first National Action Plans were communicated to the Commission in 2012 and are to be reviewed by the Member States at least every 5 years. Member States are to take all necessary measures to achieve the targets set out in the National Action Plans.

Under the Regulation on plant protection products (EU, 2009b), the Commission is required to identify active substances (i.e. active ingredients) with certain properties as candidates for substitution. Member States will then evaluate whether or not these active ingredients might be replaced by other pesticides that are less harmful. While this process is currently in the early stages of implementation, over time it should promote the use of less harmful pesticides and provide incentives to industry to develop pesticides with less hazardous properties. Apart from the active pesticide ingredients, plant protection products contain substantial amounts of additives called adjuvants and synergists, which are added to alter e.g. the uptake and potency of the active substances. Adjuvants can be toxic to both humans and the environment (Mesnage et al., 2014)[3] and fall within the scope of the Regulation (EU, 2009b).  Currently no specific rules for the authorisation of adjuvants (including data requirements, notification, evaluation, assessment and decision making procedures) have been set at EU level.

Water quality legislation also generates obligations to control environmental exposure to pesticides. The contamination of surface waters with pesticides is managed under the Water Framework Directive (EU, 2000), which requires upstream controls to reduce emissions, discharges and losses of those pesticides, that have been identified as priority substances or priority hazardous substances under the Priority Substances Directive (EU, 2013b). The Drinking Water Directive (EU, 1998) stipulates a maximum concentration of 0.1 μg/L for any single pesticide and its relevant metabolites (to a maximum of 0.5 μg/L for total pesticides) in potable water. In 2013 about 7% of the groundwater stations reported excessive levels for one or more of the 31 measured pesticides and their degradation products. In river stations up to 5% had excessive levels, but for two pesticides it was up to 35% and 43% of all stations that had excessive levels (Eurostat, 2013). The next planned update of the agri-environmental indicator on pesticide pollution of water is in 2018.

Thresholds are also applied for pesticide residues in food and feed (EU, 2005), and as undesirable substances in animal feed (EU, 2002). The latest annual report by the European Food Safety Authority concluded that 97.2% of the samples analysed fell within the maximum pesticide residue levels in food permitted in EU legislation (EFSA, 2017).

As shown in Figure 1, total sales of pesticides across the EU as a whole stayed constant between 2011 and 2015 (there was an insignificant increase of 0.2 %). After a small decline from 2011 to 2013, sales increased again in 2014 to just under 400 000 tonnes and came back to the 2011 level in 2015. The groups of pesticides sold also remained relatively stable over the 2011 to 2015 period (Figure 1). The EU demand for pesticides has therefore remained nearly stable, which could indicate that the risks of pesticides to humans and the environment have remained constant, despite implementation of the National Action Plans under the Directive on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides.  

This analysis is based on the fact that the risks of pesticide use depend on both the exposure to pesticides, related to the amount, application methods and use patterns of pesticides, and to the hazards of the active ingredients and adjuvants present in the pesticide product.  

Exposure to pesticides cannot be directly equated with pesticide sales, which is why the indicator tells us little about the absolute magnitude of the specific risks. The climate, landscape, habitat and soil characteristics of the receiving ecosystem, as well as proximity to water bodies, also influence how pesticides disperse in the environment. The analysis therefore relies on some assumptions. For example, taking the sales of pesticides as a proxy for exposure to pesticides assumes that use patterns have not fundamentally changed between 2011 and 2015. Indeed, variations in weather do not explain the lack of decrease in EU pesticide sales over the 2011-2015 period since comparison of 2-3 year averages within this period shows increases in the pesticide sales of 1.4 to 5.8 % [4]. The assumption that the hazards stay constant if the volume of sold pesticides in each category stays constant, does not consider whether some pesticides, within a category e.g. insecticides, have been replaced by other pesticides that are more or less toxic to organisms other than the targeted pest. To properly assess this risk would have required information on the individual pesticides within each pesticide category which currently is not available (EC, 2017b). These various aspects also influence the risk to environment and health and are not accounted for by measuring the volumes sold on the market.

With the aim of enabling an assessment of EU-level progress in reducing the risks and adverse effects of pesticides on human health and the environment, the Directive on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides foresees the establishment of harmonised risk indicators. Development of these indicators is dependent on access to data on pesticide use. The Regulation on pesticide statistics (EU, 2009c) was expected to deliver data in 2016 on the agricultural use of pesticides by crop for 5-year periods, which would facilitate a better understanding of the risks to the environment and human health. Such data are nevertheless not yet available.

Figure 1. Total pesticides sales, EU

Note: : Where no data were reported, the gaps were filled by using data from the closest year, with preference to the previous year, when available.

Monitoring (mixtures of) pesticides [5] in the European environment and in humans could provide a robust basis for assessing exposure that, in combination with ecological and human toxicity data, could enhance our understanding of current risks to human health and the environment. Under the Water Framework Directive, Member States have established a network of monitoring stations through which to investigate the presence of priority substances and priority hazardous substances in surface waters - several of these substances are pesticides. In addition, ground water monitoring data are currently in the process of being reported to the EEA and the EEA plans to publish the results in the course of 2018. With regard to human exposure, a European Human Biomonitoring Research Initiative has been established to deliver data on the exposure of the European population to chemicals, including pesticides. These activities should serve to support a more robust assessment of the risks from pesticides to human health and the environment.

Overall, the selected indicator does not currently enable a proper evaluation of progress towards the 2020 objective. The quantity of pesticides sold on the EU market cannot be directly equated to a level of risk to human health and the environment, while the limited availability of the past time series (only five data points) adds further uncertainty to a plausible 2020 outlook.

Nevertheless, the fact that the total volume of sales of pesticides in 2015 has not been reduced compared with the baseline year of 2011, and that there has hardly been any change in the main groups of pesticides sold over the same period, raises concerns as to the likelihood of the objective being met by 2020.

Country level information

In 2015, the countries in which the highest quantities of pesticides were sold were France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Poland, together making up 72 % of the EU's pesticide sales (Eurostat, 2017a).

Figure 2 shows the percentage change in the sales of pesticides (in kilograms of active ingredients) per country for the average pesticide quantity sold in the period 2014-2015 compared with 2011-2013. Values were averaged over more than a year in order to minimize variations due to weather.

In more than half of the EU countries as well as in Switzerland the average quantity of pesticides sold in 2014-2015 increased compared with the average quantity sold in 2011-2013 [6]. The biggest increases were in Finland, Latvia and Estonia (20-23 %). The biggest decreases were in Denmark (56 %) and Greece (43 %).  

The average agricultural land (statistically known as utilised agricultural area[7]) remained constant at EU level between the two periods: 2011-2013 and 2014-2015 (Eurostat, 2017b). The changes at country level were also small between these two periods and therefore did not play a considerable role in the observed changes.

In the case of Estonia, the agricultural land increased between these two periods by almost 5 % (Eurostat, 2017b).  The increase in sold pesticides observed in figure 2 can therefore only partly be explained by the increase in the agricultural land.  Nevertheless, Estonia has a pesticide use per hectare of agricultural land below the EU average.

It should also be noted that some of the large decrease in the amount of pesticide sold in Denmark, may reflect farmers decisions to stockpile pesticides before the introduction of a new tax in Denmark on pesticides in 2013. 

In 2015, the countries with the highest pesticide sale per hectare of agricultural land were Malta, the Netherlands, Cyprus, Belgium, Ireland, Italy and Portugal. These countries were above 5 kg of pesticide active ingredient/ha, with Malta at 15 kg active ingredient/ha. The EU average was 3.8 kg of pesticide active ingredient/ha. These calculations were EEA own calculations based on Eurostat data for pesticide sales (Eurostat, 2017a) and for utilised agricultural area excluding grasslands (Eurostat, 2017b).   

Figure 2. Percentage change in pesticide sales by country

Note: 1. Where no data were reported, the gaps were filled by using data from the closest year, with preference to the previous year, when available.
2. The chart shows the percentage change in the sales of pesticides (in kilograms of active ingredients) per country for the average pesticide quantity sold in the period 2014-2015 compared with 2011-2013. Values were averaged over more than a year in order to minimize variations due to weather. The methodology is available through the online chart.

Outlook beyond 2020

There are a number of conflicting trends expected to influence future demand for pesticides. The implementation of National Action Plans by Member States should foster the sustainable use of pesticides in the long term, as well as promoting integrated pest management and organic farming. The EU has seen an upward trend in organic farming, with the total organic area in the EU having increased from 5.6 % in 2012 to 6.7 % in 2016 of the total utilised agricultural area (Eurostat, 2017c). While a continuation of this trend in future years may serve to reduce overall EU demand for pesticides, there is a significant variation in the proportion of organic farming in agricultural production among different EU Member States. On the other hand, global food production will need to increase in order to feed a population estimated to rise above 9.6 billion by 2050 (EEA, 2015). The associated increase in demand may drive further intensification of agricultural production and lead to an increased demand for agrochemicals.  Further research is also needed to fully understand how the adjuvants and synergists in the pesticide formulations, may present risk in themselves, or promote the risk of pesticides to the environment or to people (Martin et al. 2011).

In terms of technological developments, precision agriculture and smart technology offer the potential to optimise the relationship between productivity and inputs, thereby increasing the sustainability of agricultural production. The approach employs sensors and global navigation satellite systems to manage spatial and temporal variability in the demand for agricultural inputs. In the case of pesticides, this involves ensuring that application rates are precisely tailored to needs, for example, by responding to variability in the scale and density of crops or the presence of natural enemies of insect pests. Further research is required to fully understand the environmental benefits of precision agriculture and to promote its uptake, where relevant (JRC, 2015).

About the indicator

The indicator provides data on the volumes of sales of the active substances (or active ingredients) contained in pesticides; the data are broken down by main pesticide groups. Sales data for active substances are reported by the Member States to Eurostat under the Regulation on pesticide statistics (EU, 2009c). This Regulation covers pesticides, or plant protection products, defined as products consisting of or containing active substances, safeners or synergists, and intended for one of the following uses:

  • protecting plants or plant products against all harmful organisms or preventing the action of such organisms, unless the main purpose of these products is considered to be for reasons of hygiene rather than for the protection of plants or plant products;
  • influencing the life processes of plants, such as substances influencing their growth, other than as a nutrient; preserving plant products, in so far as such substances or products are not subject to special European Community provisions on preservatives;
  • destroying undesired plants or parts of plants, except algae, unless the products are applied on soil or water to protect plants; or 
  • checking or preventing undesired growth of plants, except algae.

An active substance (ingredient) is a substance or micro-organism, including viruses, that has general or specific action against harmful organisms or on plants, parts of plants or plant products. This indicator does not address biocides.

Pesticide sales data can only provide a proxy for the actual use of pesticides, as they do not account for storage for later use, wastage, or the transport of pesticide products across borders. Data on the actual application of pesticides by crop and by region, as well as monitoring for a wider range of pesticides and pesticide adjuvants in the environment, water and in human blood would allow improved understanding of the risks to human health and the environment. The European Commission report on the implementation of the Regulation on pesticide statistics explains, inter alia, why data on the use of pesticides are not yet available (EC, 2017b). 

Footnotes and references

[1] Pesticides in European streams have been linked to a reduction in regional biodiversity by up to 42 % for invertebrates (Beketov et al., 2013), and, from 1989 to 2013, some areas had declines of up to 78 % for insects, 86 % for pollinators such as bees, and a 27 % reduction in species (Vogel G, 2017). This has been linked to a combination of pesticides use (Geiger et al. 2010) and land-use changes. As a consequence, certain bird species populations (for example farmland birds) and the ability to produce fruits, berries and honey are declining in Europe. 

[2] In September 2017, the European Commission adopted scientific criteria to identify endocrine disruptors in plant protection products and in biocides (EC, 2017a) with the aim of protecting human health and the environment.

[3], and Mesnage R, Defarge N, de Vendomois JS, Séralini GE. Major pesticides are more toxic to human cells than their declared active principles. BioMed Res Int. 2014;2014. doi:10.1155/2014/179691.

[4] The EU average yearly pesticide sales of 2014-2015 (395 million tonnes) versus 2011-2013 (373 million tonnes) corresponded to an increase of 5.8 % while the EU average yearly pesticide sales of 2013-2015 (384 million tonnes) versus 2011-2012 (379 million tonnes) corresponded to an increase of 1.4 %.

[5] Pesticides are formulations that contain mixtures of active ingredients, synergists to promote toxicity and adjuvants.

[6] The country average volumes of sold pesticides (kg of active ingredient) for the periods 2011-2013 and 2014-2015 are available online through figure 2. Please mouse underneath the figure, press explore and then select Table. 

[7] Utilised agricultural area describes the area used for farming. It includes the following land categories: arable land, permanent grassland, permanent crops and other agricultural land such as kitchen gardens (Eurostat, 2017b). 



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EU, 2009a, Directive 2009/128/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 October 2009 establishing a framework for Community action to achieve the sustainable use of pesticides (OJ L 309, 24.11.2009, p. 71–86).

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Environmental indicator report 2017 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No21/2017, European Environment Agency

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