Op-Ed – The Solution to Free Half of European Arable Land from Pesticides

202210, copyright Kristof Vadino, Brussel, pesticides, protest against use of pesticides, in front of the European Parliament, Place Luxemburg

In this op-ed, Annemarie Botzki of FoodWatch International makes the case, and outlines a vision, for how European farms can to exit pesticides, crop by crop.

In the rolling fields of Europe where grains dominate the landscape, a quiet crisis is unfolding. Our daily bread, and large amounts of animal feed, are playing a role in the decline of bees, biodiversity and our food security at large.
Europe has lost 800 million birds since 1980, primarily due to increased use of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, according to the French National Centre for Scientific Research. This decline is part of a broader environmental crisis that also includes the dwindling numbers of essential pollinators like bees, butterflies, and hoverflies, which are crucial for crop and wildflower survival.
The European Commission has warned (pg 7) that the current pesticide-reliant agricultural model could threaten food security by reducing biodiversity, increasing pests, and degrading soil health. Contrary to saving our food supply, pesticides are posing a significant risk to it.
Moreover, the European Union faces challenges in meeting its commitments to the Kunming–Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity, both aimed at halting biodiversity loss. With an escalating extinction crisis, legal actions against governments failing to protect biodiversity may soon become more prevalent.
Despite high-flying biodiversity targets and international commitments on paper, Europe is missing its goals due to a stubborn reliance on pesticides: EU-wide use of pesticides has increased since the 1990s, while the European Commission has abandoned its promise to halve the use of chemicals pesticides and ban the most hazardous ones.
Why are efforts to cut down on pesticides failing? What can be done in a time of farmers’ protest and derailing of ecological obligations? What can policymakers do at a time when the CAP, despite being full of imperfections, has been even deprived of environmental conditionalities?

Europe can Exit Pesticides, Crop by Crop

It’s time for a revolution in European agriculture. We’ve been so focused on reducing costs and competing globally that we’ve overlooked a simple, viable solution: transforming how we cultivate grains like wheat and maize.
The numbers are striking and show these crops can’t be ignored. We made it clear in our report “The Dark Side of Grains” that around 50 percent of Europe’s arable land, totalling 52 million hectares, is dedicated to growing cereals like winter wheat and maize, making them the biggest pesticide consumers. In Germany wheat and barley alone account for 45% of pesticide use, cereals constitute approximately 67% of Denmark’s pesticide use and in France roughly 50% of pesticide treatments are targeting cereals like wheat, barley, and triticale.
Consider the typical large-scale grain field — a monoculture that sees between four to six pesticide treatments a season. This approach has not only decimated the wildflowers essential for a thriving food web supporting insects and birds but is also leaching toxins into our drinking water. The price of grain might be low, but Europeans are paying dearly in the long term. The ecological damage wreaked by pesticides persists for decades, long after certain chemicals have been banned.
Phasing out pesticides doesn’t require an overnight overhaul. By prioritizing crops like wheat and maize, which can be grown without pesticides through simple measures like crop rotation and tillage, we can reduce pesticide use dramatically. More challenging crops like grapes and apples can follow, with tailored research and pest management strategies.

Make polluters pay

Moreover, an EU-wide pesticide tax, scaled by toxicity, could discourage harmful chemicals’ use. We also need to champion methods that bolster natural pest defenses, like diversified crop rotations and structural additions to fields.
We know pesticides should be the last resort, but the practice on European fields is the opposite: pesticides are ordered by farmers before the crop is sowed, sprayed pre-emptively, when it is unclear if there is any pest to treat at all. This is against EU laws and only benefits the big agro-chemical companies, with dire consequences for society.
The potential solutions are straightforward but require bold action. Europe could significantly cut its pesticide use by eliminating sprays on grains used for bread, flour and feed or biofuels. These crops, which have no aesthetic requirement, could be managed without chemicals. Moreover, integrating crop rotations, adding structural diversity like trees and bushes to fields, and adopting resistant crop varieties could reinvigorate natural pest control through predators.
Just focusing on grains, we could free up around half of European fields from pesticides, in a short-term period! Imagine: 52 million hectares freed from toxic chemicals. Sorry, Bayer-Monsanto.
Read/download the Foodwatch report

Pesticide-free production is already happening

Change is possible and pesticide-free cereal production is already a reality in Europe. For instance, Switzerland’s Migros supermarket, in partnership with Ip-Suisse, annually buys 85,000 tonnes of pesticide-free grain. Germany’s Maurer Bakery and France’s Brocéliande cooperative are also pioneering sustainable practices, proving that large-scale, chemical-free farming is not only feasible but successful. In the UK, the ‘Wildfarmed’ initiative has enlisted top marketing professionals to boost the visibility of their wild-farmed flour products.
It’s high time for Europe to lead the way, crop by crop, starting with wheat and maize, towards a sustainable, pesticide-free future. For more information read our exit plan for pesticides, crop by crop.
Annemarie Botzki has been working as a campaigner at foodwatch since April 2022.
She fights for better agriculture, dignified animal husbandry and real climate protection.



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