Pesticide pollution still poses significant risks to our health and to the environment. We sat down with Dario Piselli, EEA environment, human health and well-being expert to discuss the problem posed by pesticides and what the European Union is doing to address the challenge.

Dario Piselli
EEA expert on environment, human health and well-being

How big of a problem are chemical pesticides in Europe?

Even though several harmful active substances contained in pesticides have been banned in recent years, the use of chemical pesticides in Europe remains a major source of pollution, an important driver of biodiversity loss and a possible cause of negative health impacts for exposed users and citizens. By affecting pollinators, soil microorganisms and pest control agents, pesticide use also threatens key ecosystem services which help maintain food security in Europe.

The situation has not improved since the EU Directive on the sustainable use of pesticides was adopted in 2009. Overall pesticide sales have remained stable in Europe over the past decade. While there has been progress in some Member States, our system of industrial agriculture remains fundamentally reliant on the use of high quantities of chemical pesticides.

What did our recent assessment conclude?

We have recently published an EEA briefing on pesticides and impacts on human health. Our main messages are very clear. It is urgent to reduce pesticide use and risk. Every year, pesticide concentrations exceed thresholds of concern in up to a quarter of monitoring sites in European rivers and lakes, and they contaminate over 80% of the EU’s agricultural soils. Human exposure to pesticide residues in Europe is also widespread, with 84% of the samples in a large study across five European countries found contaminated with mixtures of at least two different pesticides.

These levels of exposure are clearly unsustainable. The evidence shows that pesticides are one of the primary drivers of declines in populations of insects, birds and many other groups of species. Moreover, pesticide exposure can cause several chronic diseases in humans, with users of pesticides and vulnerable groups such as children being particularly at risk.

Our assessment finds that we cannot reduce these impacts without introducing additional policies and adopting measures to accelerate and incentivise the transition to more sustainable farming systems. At the same time we also need to improve current risk assessment procedures to ensure that harmful substances do not reach the market in the first place.

What sort of pesticides are we talking about? What specific damage do they do?

The EEA briefing focuses on chemical pesticides, which are those that contain synthetic active substances and that are normally (with some exceptions) more toxic than non-chemical ones.

Many long-banned pesticides, such as DDT or atrazine, are particularly toxic and they tend to persist and accumulate in the environment. Due to these properties, they continue to be found in the environment even though they have been banned for several years. However, substances that have only recently been banned, and even some currently approved substances, have also been linked to a wide range of effects on biodiversity and human health. For example, neonicotinoid insecticides, which until recently have been extensively authorised on an emergency basis by several EU countries, are very harmful for bees, mammals and birds.

Chronic diseases linked to exposure to chemical pesticides range from various types of cancers to neurological disorders, developmental delays in children and effects on reproductive capacity and infertility.

How can we reduce pesticide use or find safer alternatives?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to reducing chemical pesticide use in Europe, given the variety of local conditions across EU Member States. Necessary measures include ensuring that all farmers apply integrated pest management approaches, with pesticide use as a last resort; providing training and information to farmers on the use of alternative methods; and restricting the use of pesticides in public spaces and ecologically sensitive areas. It is also very important to support farmers, offering incentives for the transition to farming systems such as organic farming, precision farming and agro-ecology rather than subsidising unsustainable agricultural practices.

As we reduce the use of chemical pesticides, we need to further invest in research and innovation on alternative pest control methods and accelerate the regulatory approval of biological pesticides, an area where the European Commission began to adopt new rules last year. And lastly, as a baseline, we must improve the availability of data about pesticide use and the monitoring of pesticides in the environment and in humans, in order to better support risk management and policy-making.

Many argue that reducing the use of chemical pesticides will reduce crop yields. Is that concern justified?

As part of our briefing, we looked into a range of existing assessments and studies to understand whether this concern is justified. Although estimates vary widely, existing models do suggest that reducing pesticide use would negatively affect yields for certain crops in Europe.

However, there are many other aspects that none of these studies has really been able to capture, and that would help mitigate such concerns. Already now, agro-ecological practices, such as crop diversification, are increasingly shown to preserve crop yields, and increased efficiency in organic farming and development of alternative pest control methods will further decrease negative impacts on yields. Moreover, we can reap significant co-benefits by intervening in other parts of the food system, for example by reducing food waste and shifting to more plant-based diets. 

As a result, we can state that food security in Europe is not at risk and that supporting a shift to more sustainable food systems would enable us to achieve chemical pesticide-free agriculture without compromising domestic consumption or net exports of agricultural products.

What else is the EEA doing in this area?

The EEA collects and assesses data reported by the Member States on pesticide concentrations in European rivers, lakes and groundwaters as part of its mandate under the EU’s water legislation. As part of this work, we publish an indicator showing the percentage of monitoring sites in Europe which exceed ‘safe’ levels of pesticide concentrations.

We are also playing a growing role in the monitoring of human exposure to chemicals, including pesticides, through our participation in EU-funded projects such as the Human Biomonitoring Initiative for Europe (HBM4EU) and its follow-up, the Partnership for the Assessment of Risks from Chemicals (PARC). Finally, the assessment of trends in pesticide pollution and its impacts on human health and the environment is an important part of many of our cross-cutting assessments in areas such as zero pollution, food system sustainability, and the state of European waters.

How does the EEA work support the EU and its Member States?

In Europe, reducing pressures associated with pesticide use is an urgent challenge and an important component of the vision set in the European Green Deal. As part of its 2020 Farm to Fork Strategy, the European Commission has proposed to halve the use and risk of chemical pesticides, as well as the use of more hazardous pesticides, by 2030. In order to achieve these targets, the Commission has proposed to replace the existing directive on the sustainable use of pesticides with a new, more ambitious regulation.

With our assessments on pesticide pollution, as well as through our broader work area on agriculture and food systems, we aim to support the transition to a more sustainable food system in Europe. This includes providing sound, independent information about the pressures and impacts that pesticide use exerts on the environment and human health. It also entails assessing synergies and trade-offs across possible policy responses.

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