Pesticide sales

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2018 Last modified 26 Nov 2019
20 min read
Photo: © hpgruesen on


EU indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook for 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 total sales of pesticides remained constant between 2011 and 2016, indicating that there was no less reliance on pesticides in Europe. This indicator does not allow, at present, for a full evaluation of progress towards the 2020 objective as pesticide sales are not synonymous with the risk of harmful effects on humans and the environment. The outlook towards 2020 is therefore unclear.

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2018

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 that such products should be used sustainably. Total reported sales of pesticides in the EU did not decrease between 2011 and 2016. The shares of different pesticide sale groups also remained relatively constant until 2015, while changes in 2016 may have been influenced by the 5-yearly update of allowed pesticides. Pesticide sales do not adequately indicate the harmful effects of pesticide use on human health and the environment. This is because these harmful effects also depend, inter alia, on the hazardous properties and on the actual use of the pesticides. It is therefore not possible, based on this indicator, to reach firm conclusions on progress towards meeting the selected 7th EAP objective by 2020. However, the evolution of pesticide sales data does not point to a Europe wide shift towards pesticide use reducing environmental and human exposure to these chemicals. This raises concerns over the likelihood of the objective being met by 2020.

Setting the scene

Pesticide (or plant protection product) use plays an important role in agricultural production, and in horticulture and forestry, by preventing disease and infestation of crops. However, pesticides applied to crops can enter the soil, as well as surface and groundwaters via leaching and run-off. They affect habitats and contribute to biodiversity loss, including large reductions of insect populations (Ewald, 2015 and Hallmann, 2017).[1] This may in turn lead to the deterioration of ecosystem services, such as insect-mediated pollination, soil formation and composition, and the provision of clean drinking water. Pesticide residues in food may, in addition, pose a risk to 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, which can affect brain function, particularly if exposure occurs during foetal development (Bjørling-Poulsen et al., 2008).

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 in a sustainable way.

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 would have to establish 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. 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. A review by the EU Commission (EC, 2017c) revealed that in 2017 all Member States had plans in place.

Under the Regulation on plant protection products (EU, 2009b), the European 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.

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 substances under the Priority Substances Directive (EU, 2013b). The Groundwater Directive (EU, 2006) sets a maximum concentration of pesticides in groundwater. Member States also identify and set quality standards for River Basin Specific Pollutants in surface waters and Threshold Values in groundwaters for substances including some individual pesticides. 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 — the latest year with available information — about 7 % of groundwater drinking water stations reported excessive levels for one or more of the 31 measured pesticides and their degradation products. In river drinking water stations up to 5 % had excessive levels in 2013 (Eurostat, 2013).  

Thresholds are also applied for pesticide residues in food and feed (EU, 2005; EU, 2002). The latest annual report by the European Food Safety Authority concluded that 97.2 % of samples analysed fell within the maximum pesticide residue levels in food permitted in EU legislation (EFSA, 2017).
As harmonised monitoring data regarding the application of pesticides are not available, this briefing uses total pesticide sales figures as a rough proxy for tracking progress towards meeting the 7th EAP selected objective outlined above by 2020.  

Figure 1 depicts the total sales of pesticides (in tonnes of active ingredients) in the EU over the 2011-2016 period, including the break down by pesticide group. It shows that the total pesticide sales for this period were relatively constant —2016 sales were 0.6 % higher than 2011 sales. It should be noted, however, that comparing the average of the last 3 years of the series (2014-2016) with the average of the first 3 years of the series (2011-2013) shows an increase in pesticide sales of 5.6 % over the period examined. Figure 1 also shows that the shares of different pesticide sales groups remained relatively constant until 2015. Changes in 2016 may have been influenced by the update of the list of allowed pesticides, which took place in 2016 [3].

Overall, the sales of pesticides are influenced by multiple factors, including weather conditions, crop types, farm profitability, distributor inventories and agricultural policies (Eurofins Agroscience Services Group, 2017). One factor driving particularly the insecticides market over time is for instance the development of insect resistance to specific chemicals (UNEP, 2012).

Pesticide sales only indicate a reliance on pesticides in terms of quantitative volumes of sold pesticides. Other relevant factors are not taken into account, such as actual application patterns and the hazards (toxic properties) of the active ingredients and additives (adjuvants) present in the pesticide product (Mesnage, 2014; Defarge, 2018). In fact, proper assessment of the environmental and human health risks would have required information on the use and toxicity of the pesticide sales groups as well as of the individual pesticides within each group. Such information is currently not available at European level (EC, 2017b). The weather, landscape, habitat and soil characteristics of the receiving ecosystem, as well as proximity to water bodies, also influence how pesticides disperse in the environment.

Figure 1. Total pesticides sales, EU

Note: Where no data were reported, the gaps were filled using data from the closest year, with preference given to the previous year, when available. The gap filled spreadsheet is available on demand. In 2016, the classification of pesticide groups was updated and while this likely does not affect the sold volumes of a pesticide group, the toxicity of the groups may therefore not be fully compatible with data for 2011-2015.

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 envisages the establishment of harmonised risk indicators. It was foreseen to use data on pesticide use to develop these indicators. However, data collected under the Regulation on pesticide statistics (EU, 2009c)  on the agricultural use of pesticides by crop proved to be too disparate in the first 5-year reporting period (EC, 2017a). Further harmonisation efforts are needed, which in the future would facilitate a better understanding of the risks to the environment and human health. Furthermore, there are examples of indicators that were developed by some countries (EC, 2017b) and this shows that it is possible to better monitor progress towards a more sustainable use of pesticides.

To enhance our understanding of current risks to human health and the environment, the data on pesticides sales would have to be combined not only with specific information on actual application and toxicity of the substances involved but, if possible, also with monitoring data on their occurrence in environmental media and human exposure. A complicating factor is that e.g. some herbicides also act as insecticides, and that some new insecticides are effective at a lower volume than those they replace (UNEP, 2012).

In this respect, and as mentioned earlier, under the Water Framework Directive, Member States monitor surface and groundwater bodies for priority substances, River Basin Specific Pollutants and groundwater pollutants of which several are pesticides. In addition, groundwater monitoring data are currently being reported to the EEA, which plans to publish the results in the course of 2018 (EEA, 2018). With regard to human exposure, a research initiative on Human Biomonitoring for Europe (HBM4EU) has been established to deliver data on the exposure of the European population to chemicals [4], including pesticides. These activities could complement the pesticide sales data to support a more robust assessment of the risks from pesticides to human health and the environment.

Apart from the active pesticide ingredients, plant protection products contain substantial amounts of additives, such as adjuvants and synergists, which are added to control, typically by increasing the uptake and toxicity of the active substances. Adjuvants can be toxic to both humans and the environment (Mesnage et al., 2014; Defarge, 2018) 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.

Finally, the EU has recently reviewed measures in the Member States under the Directive on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (EC 2017c). Referring specifically to the situation in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, it concluded that, for example, stricter authorisation of pesticides has reduced the risk profile of the substances used. Pesticides sales data at country level (see Figure 2) shows that in three of these countries (Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden), the use of pesticides is also declining. In other countries, however, an increasing trend can be observed. From a risk governance perspective, further reduction of the hazard profile of the authorised pesticides should ideally go hand in hand with measures to effectively reduce the reliance of agriculture, horticulture and forestry on pesticides.   

In conclusion, the indicator tells us little about the absolute magnitude of the risks pesticides pose to humans and the environment. However, total sales of pesticides have not decreased since 2011 and the shares of different pesticides sales groups also remained relatively constant until 2015 (changes in 2016 may have been influenced by the 5-yearly update of allowed pesticides). Therefore, based on these data it is not possible to conclude that environmental and human exposures to pesticides have been reduced. This raises concerns as to the likelihood of the 7th EAP policy objective being met by 2020.

Country level information

In 2016, the countries with the highest quantities of pesticides sold were Spain followed by France, Italy, Germany and Poland, together making up 71 % of the EU's pesticide sales (Eurostat, 2018a).

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 2014-2016 compared with 2011-2013. Values were averaged over a three year period to minimise variations due to weather, disease and market conditions among others. 

Figure 2 depicts considerable variation and contrasting trends in country pesticides sales. In more than half of the EU countries as well as in Switzerland, the average quantity of pesticides sold in the period 2014-2016 increased compared with the average quantity sold between 2011 and 2013. The biggest increases were in Bulgaria (63 %), followed by Finland and Estonia (30 %). The biggest decreases were in Denmark (54 %) and Greece (40 %).

In addition, an important consideration is the amount of pesticides applied per area of agricultural land. This is because countries with more intensive agriculture apply, on average, more pesticides per area of agricultural land than countries with less intensive agriculture. However, pesticides may be used for other purposes than agriculture, such as for lawns, golf courses, forestry and in public spaces. This is why Figure 2 shows instead the percentage change in the sales of pesticides.

As explained above, multiple economic, environmental and administrative/classification factors may influence the sales of pesticides in a specific year and country. 

Figure 2. Percentage change in pesticide sales by country

Note: The average volumes of pesticides sold (kg of active ingredient) per country for the periods 2011-2013 and 2014-2016 are available online by hovering over this figure, pressing ‘Explore and then selecting ‘Table’. Where no data were reported, the gaps were filled using data from the closest year, with preference to the previous year, when available. The gap filled spreadsheet is available on demand. Data for 2016 are not fully compatible with data for 2011-2015 due to changes in the classification of pesticide groups.  

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, 2017). 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 (in the EU or in third countries). This may also lead to an increase in human exposure to pesticides from imported foods, which have higher pesticide residue levels, including of pesticides that are no longer allowed in the EU (EFSA, 2017).  Climate change may also influence the future use pattern of pesticides. Moreover, further research is needed to fully understand how the adjuvants and synergists in pesticide formulas may present risks 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 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 (Foy and Pritchard, 2018), 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 acts in a general or specific way 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, 2017a). 

Footnotes and references

[1] Pesticides in European streams have been linked to a reduction in regional biodiversity of up to 42 % for invertebrates (Beketov et al., 2013) and, from 1989 to 2013 in some areas, reductions of up to 78 % for insects, 86 % for pollinators such as bees, and 27 % for species (Vogel, 2017). This has been linked to a combination of pesticide use (Geiger et al. 2010) and land-use changes. As a consequence, certain bird species populations (for example farmland birds) are declining as is the ability to produce fruits, berries and honey 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] The list of substances in the pesticide statistics regulation (EU, 2009c) is updated every 5 years to add substances that are newly authorised and to remove those that are no longer authorised. The new 5-year cycle started in 2016.

[4] Website for Human Biomonitoring for Europe (HBM4EU):

Beketov M.A. et al., 2013, 'Pesticides reduce regional biodiversity of stream invertebrates', PNAS vol. 110 no. 27, 11039–11043, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1305618110.

Bjørling-Poulsen M. et al., 2008, 'Potential developmental neurotoxicity of pesticides used in Europe', Environmental Health, 2008;7:50. doi:10.1186/1476-069X-7-50.

Defarge N. et al., 2018, ’Toxicity of formulants and heavy metals in glyphosate-based herbicides and other pesticides’, Toxicology Reports, 5(October 2017), 156–163 ( accessed 16 November 2018.

EC, 2017a, Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the implementation of Regulation (EC) No 1185/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 November 2009 concerning statistics on pesticides (COM(2017) 109 final).


EEA, 2015, European environment — state and outlook 2015: Assessment of global megatrends, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2018, European waters — Assessment of status and pressures 2018, EEA Report No 7/2018, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

EFSA, 2017, ‘The 2015 European Union report on pesticide residues in food’, European Food Safety Authority, Scientific report, EFSA journal 2017; 15(4): 4791 134 pp. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2017.4791.

EU, 1998, Council Directive 98/83/EC of 3 November 1998 on the quality of water intended for human consumption (OJ L 330, 5.12.1998, p. 32–54).

EU, 2000, Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a framework for the Community action in the field of water policy (OJ L 327, 22.12.2000, p. 1–73).

EU, 2002, Directive 2002/32/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 7 May 2002 on undesirable substances in animal feed (OJ L 140, 30.5.2002, p. 10–22). 

EU, 2005, Regulation (EC) No 396/2005 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 February 2005 on maximum residue levels of pesticides in or on food and feed of plant and animal origin and amending Council Directive 91/414/EEC (OJ L 70, 16.3.2005, p. 1–16). 

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).

EU, 2009b, Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 October 2009 concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market and repealing Council Directives 79/117/EEC and 91/414/EEC (OJ L 309, 24.11.2009, p. 1–50).

EU, 2009c, Regulation (EC) No 1185/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 November 2009 concerning statistics on pesticides (OJ L 234, 10.12.2009, p. 1–22).

EU, 2013a, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 'Living well, within the limits of our planet', Annex A, paragraph 54e (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

EU, 2013b, Directive 2013/39/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 August 2013 amending Directives 2000/60/EC and 2008/105/EC as regards priority substances in the field of water policy (OJ L 226, 24.8.2013, p. 1–17).

Eurofins Agroscience Services Group, 2017, ‘Annual Review 2016. Agrow Agribusiness intelligence’, ( accessed 15.05.2018.

Eurostat, 2013, ‘Agri-enviornmental indicator – pesticide pollution of water’ ( accessed 16 March 2018.

Eurostat, 2017, 'Organic farming statistics' ( accessed 16 March 2018.

Eurostat, 2018a, 'Pesticide sales', aei_fm_salpest09 ( accessed 16 March 2018.

Eurostat, 2018b, 'Utilised agricultural area by categories', tag00025 ( accessed 16 March 2018.

Eurostat, 2018c, ‘Agri-environmental indicator – consumption of pesticides’ (, #Key_messages) accessed 30 October 2018.

Ewald J.A. et al., 2015, ‘Influences of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields over 42 years’, Global Change Biology 21(11):3931-3950 (  PMID: 26149473) accessed 17 November 2017.

Foy L.F. and Pritchard D.W., 2018, ‘Pesticide Formulation and Adjuvant Technology, CRC Press, ISBN 9781351425322.

Geiger F. et al., 2010, 'Persistent negative effects of pesticides on biodiversity and biological control potential on European farmland', Basic and Applied Ecology, Volume 11, Issue 2, March 2010, 97-105, ISSN 1439-1791, ( accessed 16 March 2018.

Hallmann C.A. et al., 2017, ‘More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas’, PLoS ONE 12 (10): e0185809 ( 16 March 2018.

JRC, 2015, Precision agriculture: An opportunity for EU farmers — Potential support with the CAP 2014-2020, DG for Internal Policies, Study, Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, Seville.

Martin A. et al., 2011, ‘Pesticides and Formulation Technology’, Purdue University, Purdue Extension, PPP-31, Revised 1/11 ( accessed 16 March 2018.

Mesnage R. et al., 2014, 'Major pesticides are more toxic to human cells than their declared active principles', BioMed Res Int. 2014;2014. doi:10.1155/2014/179691.

Mnif W. et al., 2011, 'Effect of endocrine disruptor pesticides: A review', International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, (8.6) 2265–2303.

Trasande L. et al., 2015, 'Estimating burden and disease costs of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the European Union', The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, (100.4) 1245–1255.

UNEP, 2012, 'Global Chemical Outlook'. accessed 12 May 2018.

Vogel G., 2017, 'Where have all the insects gone?' ( accessed 16 March 2018.

Environmental indicator report 2018 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No19/2018, European Environment Agency


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage