The corporate lobbying drumbeat kept banging ever louder — and in the end led to a dramatic downfall of one of the key Green Deal initiatives for ecosystems, health and food security.

By Nina Holland

Last week MEPs of the right-wing EPP group – with help of the far right and a group of Liberal Renew members – have derailed the long-awaited pesticide reduction law SUR. A key initiative of the EU Green Deal.

Amendment after amendment was adopted that further weakened the SUR, that had suffered attacks since its very announcement in the EU Green Deal. Until in the end, MEPs standing for health and the environment decided that this was not a text they could support, and voted it down.

Pesticides are a major cause of dramatic biodiversity decline around the world, an ecological disaster that is in an even more advanced stage than the climate crisis, putting in peril “the integrity of living systems” that humans also depend upon, according to the Stockholm Resilience Center.

1.1 million people supported a European Citizens’ Initiative calling for a very ambitious pesticide reduction and support for farmers to achieve this. According to an IPSOS poll among citizens in 6 EU member states commissioned by PAN-Europe, no less than 81.8% of respondents are concerned about the harm to the environment of pesticide use.
And for a while, it seemed a different wind was blowing in Brussels, at least where food and agriculture topics were concerned. Politicians at the top of the EU Commission, including president Ursula von der Leyen, appeared to recognise the need to act and to act urgently.

However, right from the start of these plans, we have witnessed day-to-day, month-to-month, how corporations such as Bayer and BASF, their lobby groups, and their political allies have operated to stall, undermine, and even derail numerous Green Deal projects.

The culmination of this project took place last week when the proposed pesticide reduction law was defeated in Strasbourg.

As the Green MEP Sarah Wiener, rapporteur on the pesticide reduction law, said after the vote: “This is a very dark day for the society as a whole and for the environment — and also for farmers.”

By contrast, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) celebrated the collapse of the proposal. The law had already become severely hollowed out, rather like the Nature Restoration Law and the EPP had worked to undermine both proposals, walking a cynical populist path of environmental destruction, and rebranding itself the ‘farmers’ party’ for perceived electoral gain.

Notably the EPP group of conservatives, in particular people like Norbert Lins (Germany) or Alexander Bernhuber (Austria), acted as mouthpieces for the pesticide industry all along.

Regrettably the pesticide reduction proposal now joins various other elements of the Green Deal which have also failed to make it into law including the Sustainable Food Systems law, new animal welfare rules, a highly-needed revision of chemicals legislation, and more.

But the collapse of the Green Deal did not suddenly fall from the sky.

Two-year industry lobby campaign

A two-year long campaign was waged, with the farm lobby and the pesticide industry working in tandem. This involved championing self-orchestrated ‘impact studies’, scaremongering about loss of productivity, and food security.

The assumptions and design of these studies were widely discredited by scientists, EU institutions, and NGOs. No less than 6,000 scientists have expressed their support for both the pesticide-reduction law and the Nature Restoration Law as essential for food security in the long term.

Nevertheless, the corporate drumbeat kept banging ever louder and in the end caused a six-month delay in the pesticide reduction negotiations, as the Council forced the commission to do more studies. This delay was critical, as at this point in the electoral cycle, it left little time to finish the file.

Besides this delay tactic, many others have been used to undermine the pesticide reduction proposal.

A new Corporate Europe Observatory report reveals that the industry lobby not only undermined the pesticide reduction targets proposed in the law, but also downplayed the potential of biological ways to deal with pests; sponsored opaque media content to promote their messages; and pushed their own technological solutions even when unproven, such as deregulating gene-edited crops. The latter will be patented by corporations, increasing dependency for farmers.

This is another situation, familiar from other lobby battles, where farm lobby Copa-Cogeca as well as conservative MEPs of the EPP claim to represent the voice of farmers in Europe but in reality act against their interests. Farmers, their families and neighbours are the first to be exposed to the serious health impacts that spraying pesticides on farmland can cause such as Parkinson’s disease or cancer.

And what of the decision-makers responsible for delivering on Green Deal promises? Frans Timmermans, with overall responsibility, left office for domestic Dutch politics, while von der Leyen has long since forgotten about the EU’s ‘man on the moon’ moment’ and has failed to provide consistent support to the Green Deal agenda when the going gets tough. Meanwhile corporate lobbies strengthened the hand of EPP and other politicians who consistently prioritise corporate well-being over health and environmental well-being.

The SUR is dead in the water, for now. The issue of biodiversity declines, like the climate crisis, is not going away and will have to be dealt with. But the later we do that, the harder it will be.

Why should this sabotage by well-funded, self-interested corporate lobbies be tolerated any longer? It’s time to stop this.

There is a public interest firewall against tobacco industry lobbying on public health matters, and this is also demanded by climate crisis campaigners for the fossil-fuel industry, to stop decision-makers from sharing platforms, granting lobby access, and to prevent conflicts of interest.

To tackle the biodiversity crisis and create a liveable future, we need policies to guide and support farmers to move away from synthetic pesticides. To get there, we will have to kick toxic polluters out of political decision-making.