Developing future scenarios for the sustainable use of pesticides

Hands holding seedlings, implying modern sustainable agriculture, photo by Worawut/Adobe Stock

Worawut/Adobe Stock

There is a complex landscape surrounding pesticide use, which needs to be addressed holistically across all contexts, including political, legal, economic, societal, technological and environmental. The inherent variation across regions must also be considered, in an increasingly globalised context.

What is the issue?

The sustainable use of pesticides has been of growing concern within the European Union (EU), with multiple directives and policies developed and implemented to tackle the associated challenges. However, the multiplicity of interests and diverse stakeholder views (e.g. the agrochemical industry, policymakers, farmers, citizens) challenge the achievement of EU targets to reduce the use of pesticides and their risk to the environment and human health.

This foresight study was commissioned by the European Commission Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) to systematically consider future scenarios on the use of pesticides, linked to specific pesticide-use and risk-reduction targets to be achieved by 2030.

How did we help?

We conducted this foresight study to develop future scenarios on the use of pesticides to 2030 and beyond, aligning with the 2030 pesticide-use and risk-reduction targets announced in the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies and associated organic farming targets. The study’s purpose was to examine the sustainable use of pesticides in promoting sustainable food systems and protecting public health and the environment.

The research team adopted a participatory approach to the research, involving a variety of tools such as evidence reviews, expert surveys, citizen engagement, scenario development and policy analysis. We generated a set of future scenarios which took into account the most significant factors in pesticide use and the over-arching ambition to comply with specific European Commission pesticide reduction targets. For each scenario, we described the likely impact of a timely launch of appropriate and adequate EU policies on the sustainable use of pesticides, as well as the main obstacles to their implementation. The scenarios and their policy implications were presented at a workshop of representatives from several stakeholder groups, including National Competent Authorities from the EU Member States, industry, professional organisations, non-profit organisations, scientific experts, representatives from non-EU countries and the European Commission.

What did we find?

  • This study highlighted that there is a complex landscape surrounding pesticide use, which needs to be addressed holistically across all contexts, including political, legal, economic, societal, technological and environmental. The inherent variation across regions must also be considered, in an increasingly globalised context.
  • A suite of alternatives can potentially reduce pesticide use in some crops, ranging from biologicals/plant-biostimulants, IPM, organic and agroecological practices to technology-driven approaches such as precision agriculture. The outcomes of these research efforts must translate effectively into practice and address ‘on the ground’ challenges. Policy strategies need to provide a robust framework for farmers to take risks in implementing new practices that account for the time needed to implement change.
  • Policy strategies also need to be equipped with adequate incentives and response measures, as well as implementation and monitoring strategies.
  • With increasing population growth and changing demands, there is a need to consider how farmers can further adapt to meet consumer demand whilst maintaining their competitiveness in the global market.
  • The EU is recognised for its leadership on sustainability issues, including pesticide use, through its regulatory framework and policy actions. However, significant consideration must be given to how regulatory burden may impact the level playing field and competitiveness of different Member States, particularly in the global agricultural market.
  • Large multinational companies along the food chain can play an important role in ensuring more sustainability in future food provision. However, if the future agricultural landscape is driven mostly by a business-led agenda, there is a risk that the social dimension underpinning the agricultural sector will not receive due consideration and support.
  • Policy strategies require built-in capacity and flexibility to respond to short- and long-term stressors to be future-proof. There needs to be consensus across stakeholder groups regarding the priorities that should feature in the policy agenda at a national and EU level.

What can be done?

  1. Pesticide use needs to be managed in the longer term
  2. Innovation should consider public understanding and consumer demands
  3. Regulation must support a level playing field for farmers across the EU
  4. A future strategy needs to accommodate both large multinational companies as key players, alongside smallholder farmers
  5. Further research is required to reach a consensus on how pesticide use should be reduced