Concerns are growing in the U.S. that the European Union’s push to cut pesticide usage in half under the Farm to Fork scheme could have a major impact on the ability of U.S. farmers to export to the 27-nation bloc.

The goal is still aspirational, but EU regulators are now going through the complex process of turning it into regulations. Many in the U.S. are concerned that American farm commodities grown with the same inputs that the Europeans are trying to restrict — will not be able to be exported to EU customers.

That’s a scary prospect for American ag exports. The U.S. shipped about $11 billion worth of agricultural goods to the EU in 2021, making it the fifth largest foreign market for American exporters, according to USDA data.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he is so concerned about the potential impact of European pesticide-slashing regulators that he made it a key topic of discussions when he met recently with European Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski.

“Principally our conversation … was focused on the opportunity to understand the pesticide efforts that are underway in the EU to reduce the use of pesticides and the impact of that … on our ability to export,” Vilsack said after meeting with Wojciechowski.

While the impact of massive cuts to pesticide usage in the EU would be felt primarily by European farmers, there is growing evidence showing that when the EU cuts access for its own farmers, that translates into restrictions on imports of commodities grown with those same chemicals.

The EU isn’t just determined to cut the amount of pesticides being used by farmers, it’s also completely banning the use of a long list of those chemicals, said one U.S. government official who asked not to be named because of ongoing discussions with officials in Brussels. In the eyes of many European farmers, that puts them at an even further disadvantage to American farmers. As a result, the EU has been reducing acceptable residue levels on imports to virtually zero.

“When they eliminate a pesticide in Europe, they also then reduce the maximum residue level and import tolerance for that pesticide, essentially to the level of detection,” CropLife President and CEO Chris Novak told Agri-Pulse. “What that means is, if Europe says it’s going to ban a particular pesticide and the import tolerance level is reduced to the level of detection and a (U.S.) farmer is using that pesticide on his crop … he is in violation of the EU’s import tolerance.”

Chris NovakChris Novak, CropLife America

The EU and the U.S. diverge widely on what it means to make farming more sustainable, a goal both U.S. and European leaders say is driving policy. While the U.S. is generally focused on the use of farming tools like pesticides and fertilizers to help make farmers more sustainably productive, the EU is determined to boost organic production and slash pesticide and fertilizer use.

But European farmers, who expect to be less productive because of those efforts, continue to rail against the efforts.

Producers and farm groups across the pond have been vocally against the Farm to Fork limitations — and that’s still the case — but now most of their efforts have turned to convincing regulators not to put them at a disadvantage to farmers in the U.S., Brazil and elsewhere, said Craig Thorn, founder of DTB Associates.

European agricultural production would decline by as much as 4% and food prices would rise by as much as 60% as a result of Farm to Fork, according to USDA economists who evaluated multiple scenarios.

“As soon as it became clear that the EU intended to proceed anyway (with Farm to Fork), European farmers switched their position and started talking a lot more about fairness and leveling the playing field and how if regulators were going to impose these restrictions on Europeans, they had to do the same thing to competitors and block imports,” Thorn said.

So, if EU regulators are intent on making farming harder for European producers, they would have to put new burdens on their competitors overseas.

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EU regulators might never admit it, said Novak, but that is likely the key reason U.S. farmers have to be concerned about Farm to Fork.

“If you are taking tools away from your farmers and farmers in other countries are allowed to use those tools and those farmers are more productive and more competitive on a global market, you’ve placed your farmers at an economic disadvantage,” Novak said. “Part of what I think we’re seeing with this push from the EU is an attempt to try to level the playing field by saying, ‘Our farmers aren’t going to use these pesticides so we’re going to ensure that other countries are adhering to the same standard.’ There’s a part of this that’s economic protectionism on their part.” 

While the pesticide and other provisions of the Farm to Fork strategy are still in the process of being made into regulations, the EU’s efforts to ban pesticides are well underway in separate efforts. The EU approved legislation in 2009 to start putting environment-based restrictions on pesticides and the results began being felt a few years ago as implementation kicked in and pesticides are coming up for re-registration.

The latest action by the EU under the 2009 law — blandly named “1107/2009” — was to lower the MRL for two neonicotinoid insecticides “to the lowest level that can be measured with the latest technologies.”

The two chemicals, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, “pose a high risk to bees and contribute to the global decline of pollinators,” the European Commission said last month. “For this reason, their outdoor use has already been banned in the EU in 2018.”

The MRLs will apply to all products produced in the EU, but also to imported food and feed products. Neonics are widely used in the U.S. as seed treatments and sprayed on specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables.

“When it comes to the use and risk of pesticides, we have always been clear about our commitment to protect the health of our citizens and environment,” EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides said in the news release.

“We remain steadfast in our commitment in the Farm to Fork strategy’s ambitions of moving towards sustainable food systems and protecting pollinators,” Kyriakides said.

But MRLs are not supposed to act as an environmental standard, said Molly O’Connor, CropLife’s director of federal government relations.

“The 2009 legislation was really like the domino effect and now we’re just cascading down with the dominoes,” O’Connor said. “The EU is saying (it is) the final voice of what is sustainable, not just for the EU, but for the world.”

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