(Beyond Pesticides, May 26, 2020) Across the pond, the European Commission (EC) has announced plans to protect biodiversity and build a more sustainable food system, and identified the reduction of pesticide use and the expansion of organic agriculture as pillars of the scheme. The EC expects that the initiative, which will require EU member states’ endorsement, will advance progress on the EU goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, given that 10% of emissions arise from the agricultural sector. The EC’s goals are important and laudable, but Beyond Pesticides is clear: reduction of pesticide use in service of them is not an adequate strategy to ensure long-term success. Genuine success requires the elimination of the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and other toxic inputs, and the transition to agricultural and land management systems that work with nature, rather than fight against it. Regenerative, organic practices are the path to a livable future, according to Beyond Pesticides.
The EC, which is the executive branch of the EU, expects its plan to reduce use of pesticides by 50% by 2030; reduce use of antimicrobial chemicals, including antibiotics, in fish and animal farming by 50%; dedicate a minimum of 25% of arable land area to organic production (as opposed to the current 8%); and plant an additional 3 billion trees by 2030.
The rationale for the initiative is both environmental and economic. On the former, EC Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides commented, “Nature is vital for our physical and mental wellbeing, it filters our air and water, it regulates the climate and it pollinates our crops. But we are acting as if it didn’t matter, and losing it at an unprecedented rate.” The EC also believes that the transition to organic production for a larger proportion of the agricultural sector will help the EU recover from the impacts of the novel Coronavirus pandemic, generate 10–20% more jobs per hectare than conventional farming, and create more than 1.8 trillion euros in new economic value.
An EC case statement on the environment–economy interplay includes this summary: “The economic and social costs of inaction on environmental and climate issues would be huge, leading to frequent severe weather events and natural disasters, as well as reducing the average EU GDP by up to 2% and by even more in some parts of the EU. The world lost an estimated 3.5–18.5 trillion euros per year in ecosystem services from 1997 to 2011, owing to land-cover change, and an estimated 5.5–10.5 trillion euros per year from land degradation.”
Greenpeace EU is critical of the plan because it fails to commit to reductions in the production and consumption of meat. Livestock farming is a significant contributor to global warming emissions, and is often a source of pollution of waterways. Greenpeace EU agricultural policy direct Marco Contiero noted, “The European Commission has finally accepted the science and recognises that producing and consuming too much meat is hurting health, destroying nature and driving climate breakdown, but chooses to do nothing about it. . . . The Commission seems to be too cowardly even to end the few million going to EU-funded meat advertising, let alone reconsider the billions that support overproduction of meat in the first place.” The organization notes that the EC devoted 5 million euros to advertising of beef and veal in 2020, and that the “EU spends . . . 28 to 32 billion euros annually on livestock and feed production, while over 70% of all EU agricultural land is dedicated to feeding livestock.”
The role of conventional agriculture in the climate crisis is significant. Here in the U.S., agriculture contributed 10.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in 2018; much of that came from conventional livestock farming. A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report for 1990–2013, for example, indicated that 66% of agricultural sector emissions were emitted by livestock, primarily as methane — a GHG “on steroids,” with 90–95 times the heat-trapping impacts of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years. In the past few years, beef cattle alone have been responsible for 62% of agricultural emissions in the U.S. A huge 30% of the Earth’s ice-free land mass is used to pasture livestock.