This article is part of POLITICO’s Changemakers series, looking at the players driving European policy.
Pesticides can be found in Europe’s food, in its soil, and increasingly in its politics.
Popular outrage about chemicals in farming is roiling France’s government, which has unveiled contentious new laws designed to protect citizens. The years-long scientific dispute about whether Bayer-Monsanto’s ubiquitous glyphosate herbicide causes cancer is still rolling on. And there are legal battles raging over the EU’s decision to ban insecticides linked to declining pollinator populations.
Now EU civil servants in Brussels are beavering away on new strategies “to significantly reduce the use and risk of chemical pesticides” as part of the European Green Deal. Those measures are likely to feature in the Green Deal’s Farm to Fork (F2F) and Biodiversity strategies, which may be published as early as March. This year could also prove groundbreaking for pesticide policy when the Commission finalizes a long-delayed evaluation of the EU’s main pesticides law.
Here are five people likely to make more waves in pesticides policy this year.
Stella Kyriakides, EU commissioner for health and food safety
Kyriakides, whose department has the lead on the Farm to Fork strategy, told MEPs the plan “will be more specific about specific targets” on reducing pesticides and tweeted: “I want us to agree ambitious targets on pesticides and fertilizers to substantially reduce the risks.”
But to make those targets meaningful, Kyriakides, who hails from Cyprus, will have to rally her footsoldiers to devise a sensible and scientific way of measuring pesticide reductions, despite being hampered by a lack of joined-up data across the EU on pesticide usage. A recent report by the European Court of Auditors heavily criticized the way the Commission calculated a 20 percent drop in risk in recent years.
F2F aside, Kyriakides has inherited a directorate-general that is spearheading an unprecedented push to stop countries using outlawed pesticides. Despite a lack of agreement among EU countries, the Commission is forcing Romania and Lithuania to stop using neonicotinoid pesticides, which were fully banned for outdoor use by the EU in 2018 over their effects on dwindling bee populations.
Martin Hojsík, Renew Europe MEP from Slovakia
Elected to the European Parliament for the first time last May, Hojsík has already become a vocal and tireless player in pesticides and chemicals policies. As a full member of the environment committee, he and other lawmakers torpedoed Commission legislation in a bid to achieve stronger rules for bee-harming pesticides and joined other MEPs in symbolically objecting to the automatic extension of some pesticides’ EU licenses.
Hojsík, who sports a top-knot, has an academic background in genetics but the wide range of his interests, including animal welfare and greening finance, can be traced back to his time working for environmental NGO Greenpeace in his native Slovakia, and a later stint at animal welfare NGO Four Paws.
The MEP, who wants to take the lead on the Farm to Fork file in the environment committee when it comes to the Parliament, looks set to spend 2020 raising the alarm about the decline of pollinators and fighting for ambitious targets for reducing the risk and use of pesticides.
Daniel Cueff, mayor of Langouët, France
The mayor of a tiny commune in France’s Brittany region made headlines last year when he launched a health-focused crusade to stop pesticides being used within a 150-meter radius of his eco-village — and failed. Even French President Emmanuel Macron weighed in on the debate, praising Cueff’s intentions but backing the local court, which went on to rule that Cueff could not take the law into his own hands.
France’s pesticides debate has only gotten more heated, and Cueff has become the white-haired poster boy of anti-pesticides activism. He has formed an alliance with like-minded mayors and environmental NGOs that pressured the government to strengthen new laws creating pesticide-free zones of between 3 and 20 meters between fields and houses.
Cueff’s work is an indicator of how the tide of public opinion in France is turning ever more critically against pesticides.
Ben Scott-Robinson, ag-tech entrepreneur
This British entrepreneur sees a future where robots, not chemicals, will be a farmer’s main weapon against pests. He co-founded Small Robot Company, a start-up that is developing three robots called Tom, Dick and Harry and an artificial intelligence system called Wilma to try to vastly reduce farmers’ dependence on synthetic chemicals. Backed by £1 million of U.K. government funding, the 26-strong team has also invented a form of non-chemical weeding that uses electricity to zap weeds, and hopes to roll out a full robot service in around 2023 or 2024.
“It’s extremely hard to move away from using [chemical pesticides] in the way they are being used at the moment without adopting new technology,” he told POLITICO.
The entrepreneur, who did not have any experience in agriculture before launching the start-up with his co-founder Sam Watson Jones, said he felt that attempts to mechanize arable farming had gone as far as they could around two decades ago, and that now, attempts to make the land more efficient were only doing damage to the soil.
Michael Baum, lawyer
Glyphosate may be a hot topic in Europe, but the U.S. is where the real action is. Los Angeles-based lawyer Michael Baum has so far successfully sued the herbicide’s manufacturer Bayer three times for eye-watering sums, on behalf of clients who say that using glyphosate-based pesticide product Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Estimates put the total number of plaintiffs suing Bayer in the U.S. at anywhere between 18,000 and a whopping 45,000, and Baum, who has given evidence to the European Parliament, is representing over 3,000 of them.
Click Here: All Blacks Rugby Jersey
The German agrichemical giant Bayer walked into a legal firestorm after gobbling up Roundup creator Monsanto in 2018. Bayer is appealing the U.S. cases and maintains that glyphosate does not cause cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the EU’s food safety watchdog have both found that it is not a potential carcinogen. However, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Baum’s interest in the substance was piqued when an employee’s cousin, who had used Roundup on an orchard for decades, was diagnosed with cancer and later died, he told POLITICO in an email.
EU countries are set to decide on the fate of glyphosate when its wide license within the bloc expires in 2022, but some countries, such as Germany and Luxembourg, have already signaled their intent to do away with it.
This article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.