Away with pesticides in our cities!

Lieven Taillie
Pesticide Action Network (PAN-Europe)

Mayors and EU policies together for healthy living spaces.

Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Brussels, September 28, During a well-attended conference in the EP organized by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN-Europe) with the help of several MEPs’s the new proposals of the European Commission regulating the use of pesticides were welcomed by the mayors, experts and MEP’s taking part in the meeting, as a good step forward to restoring biodiversity and protecting the health of citizens in non-rural areas. 

Indeed, when thinking of pesticides the automatic reflex is to think about the use of pesticides in agriculture and we are not aware enough of the fact pesticides are all over the place, also in cities: in our parks, private gardens, cemeteries, verges along motorways, on roundabouts, between train tracks, etc.  

As was clearly reported the day before in the report ‘Pesticide Paradise’ produced by PAN and echoed in several media, the situation, in general, is worse than ever concluding a 100% failure rate of an EU law to ban the most harmful pesticides because officials follow rules created by industry. High rates of European pears (49%), table grapes (44%), apples (34%), plums (29%), and raspberries (25%) were sold with residues of pesticides linked to increased risk of cancer, birth deformities, heart disease, and other serious conditions and/or toxic to the environment.  But news from the cities and prospects concerning the legislation of the use of pesticides in urban environments are eying more positively, even if there is still a long way to go before the proposed new legislation can come into effect, as MEP Sarah Wiener (AT, Greens) who is going to deal with the proposal in the EP reminded. She warned of a tsunami of lobbying against the new proposal.  

Same message from Italian MEP Eleanora Evi (Greens)  who co-hosted the event and reminded the position of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) who was mandated to assess the legality of derogations and confirmed that the EU executive was entitled to make use of the recent findings of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), despite not yet being validated by EU member states, and that any new scientific and technical information should be considered in order to review the approval of a pesticide. She further fustigated against all those who are arguing, in the context of the war in Ukraine, that forbidding now the use of pesticides would bring in peril our food supply, and applauded the Commission now proposing clear rules on the use of pesticides in urban areas.  In her contribution, MEP Wiener insisted only stable ecological systems show enough stress resilience to assure the needed regular food production and to guarantee healthy living spaces. Both were explicitly joined in this by their colleagues, Croatian MEP Biljana Borzan (S&D) and Slovakian Renew MEP Martin Hojsik, both co-hosting the meeting..  

On June 22, 2022, the European Commission adopted its proposal for a new Regulation on the sustainable use of Plant Protection Products (SUR) (COM 2022, 305 final). The rules encourage reducing pesticides through integrated pest management and alternatives to chemical pesticides. The SUR is considered to be a crucial tool to achieving the targets outlined in the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy as it puts forward legally binding pesticide reduction targets to reduce the use and risk of chemical pesticides by 50% by 2030. The proposal is part of the Commission’s nature restoration package, which also includes a proposal to restore damaged ecosystems and bring back nature in our cities and landscapes across Europe. It took in account, as Andrew Owen Griffiths, head of Unit Plants and organics of DG SANTE, explained, the weaknesses detected in current implementation, application and enforcement of the SUD.

These weaknesses have been highlighted by Commission audits and fact-finding visits to Member States and implementation reports of the Commission, the European Parliamentary Research Service study on the implementation of the SUD and a recent report of the European Court of Auditors on plant-protection products. In addition, growing societal concerns about the use of pesticides were seen in the many petitions, two European citizens’ initiatives, and European Parliamentary questions on the issue.

The interesting interventions from city mayors and officials during the PAN Conference showed that cities did not wait upon this new regulation and actively undertook measures to make their cities free from chemical and even organic pesticides. Representatives from Copenhagen, Paris presented successful examples of pesticide free urban agriculture and how Paris promotes this even in a circle of 250 km around Paris as part of its plans to have only sustainable food served in its public schools, cantinas, etc.

Before that Prof Dave Goulson of Sussex University, specialized in bee ecology and well known from his different bestsellers (A sting in the tale, The garden jungle, Silent Earth….) spoke of the biodiversity crisis we are going through with eg. an estimated loss of 1 species of insects every hour! This matters as they are food for other animals and they are involved practically in all ecological processes on land and in fresh water, they recycle dead bodies, animals ,three’s, leaves, they help to keep our soils healthy, they deliver us from pests of our crops,…. we depend on them, on their ecosystem services but we don’t realize it! Where we do recognise their value is in the pollination but this is not only done by bees: lots of insects do so. 80% of plants would not survive without them and ¾ of the crops we grow depend on insect pollination.

Without this, no tomatoes and even no chocolate. The biggest reason for decline of the population of insects is industrial farming but we can all help to counter this also in our cities by promoting e.g. wildlife friendly gardening. He also delivered a plea for more tolerance towards weed and advocated for the more than weeds campaign (  which was also echoed in the undertakings presented by Audrey Pulva of the city of Paris. Interesting was also the presentation of Vladimir Svet, vice mayor of the city of Tallinn in Estonia, designated as European Green Capital for 2023. This capital of Estonia that calls itself also the capital of orchids, counts some 500 000 inhabitants on some 10 square km and has islands, lakes, and rivers on its territory. It appeared from research that the green areas are practically free now from glyphosate and pesticides indicating the success of a green policy but next is now understanding who continues to use them: state facilities (railways,…), private owners,…In absence of a national law dictating what private owners can do in and what are the best practices to get rid of the use of pesticides the city developed a kind of catalogue of plants and an instruction manual on how to maintain roads without pesticides. 

Until now it was mainly friendly advice but next year the City plans to edit a bylaw clearly restricting the use. The city is also taking other concrete initiatives such as creating a highway for pollinators on land that was dedicated to a high voltage line. Other interventions came from a member of the Committee of the Regions and local activists in France while also the Hungarian mayor Pilisborosjeno, a small city near Budapest, moderating the debate brought his thoughts gathered from his practice as a mayor and a former Greenpeace executive.

French senator Joel Labbé came to testify how the French law named after him paved the way in France to ban all pesticides. Last exception is the one for the use of chemical pesticides on big sports fields, destined to end by 2025 at latest.

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Brussels Morning is a daily online newspaper based in Belgium. BM publishes unique and independent coverage on international and European affairs. With a Europe-wide perspective, BM covers policies and politics of the EU, significant Member State developments, and looks at the international agenda with a European perspective.
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Lieven Taillie is Brussels Morning editor-in-chief, specialized in European Affairs, with more than 25 years of experience. He is the President of the Belgian sector of the Association of European Journalists.