Dr. Helmut Burtscher-Schaden (Vienna, 1966) studied biochemistry at the TU Vienna before entering the world of immunological research. Since 2001, he has been working at GLOBAL 2000 (Friends of the Earth, Austria) on the effects of chemicals, especially pesticides, on human health and the environment. Burtscher is one of the seven initiators of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) Ban glyphosate and protect people and the environment from toxic pesticides, co-organized by GLOBAL 2000, and is currently under the scrutiny of the PEST Committee of the European Parliament.
Is the European Commission’s target to reduce the use of pesticides by 50% by 2030 ambitious?
If you compare the current plans (and targets) to reduce pesticides with what we’ve had over the past three decades, it’s fair to say that they’re ambitious. If there is the political will to support these plans then we will achieve the targets and then momentum could develop of its own, so that the 50% target was just a way station from which farmers of their own volition would break their toxic dependence on the chemical industry.
What are the direct and indirect consequences of pesticide use on biodiversity and on human health?
The use of synthetic pesticides contributes to biodiversity loss in two ways. One direct effect of pesticide use is toxicity to insects, birds, amphibians, and soil and aquatic organisms. In addition, pesticides have enabled the current model of intensive agriculture, which leaves almost no room for biodiversity (agrobiodiversity) to exist because it is based on intensive monocultures. The intensification of chemical pest control since the 1960s has seemingly made the use and consideration of natural biological mechanisms for pest control – such as the provision of habitats and ecological niches for beneficial insects or the use of resistant plant varieties – obsolete. But these measures are the key to pesticide-free agriculture. To restore these natural ecosystems and enable biodiversity on agricultural lands, it is essential to reintroduce pesticide-free agroecological practices. Fortunately, it is becoming apparent that biodiversity can recover relatively quickly when habitat restoration measures are taken in parallel with the elimination of synthetic pesticides.
«If there is the political will to support these plans then we will achieve the targets and then momentum could develop of its own»
An end to pesticide use would also bring major health benefits to farmers as well as other residents of intensively farmed areas, who currently face a measurably higher risk of reproductive harm or cancer or central nervous system disease, according to studies.
Last but not least, it is meanwhile well known that pesticides can be detected in blood, tissue and urine samples from people who live far from agricultural areas. The intake of pesticide residues through food is likely to play a major role here. At present, in around 90% of all fruit and vegetable samples, residues of this kind, mostly even pesticide cocktails, can be detected. A phase-out for pesticides would put an end to these burdens.
What must change to put an end to noxious pesticides? Can the lobby that advocates the use of these substances be confronted?
Many farmers are convinced that farming without pesticides does not work because they have been told so by (often industry-affiliated) consultants for decades and have never been able to try anything else. In fact, the scope for “experimentation” under current economic conditions is very narrow for farmers.
For farmers to be able to shift their production toward more agroecological practices, financial support is needed for the transition (which could be co-financed through a pesticide tax, for example). In addition, the influence of agribusinesses on agricultural education and extension, advocacy groups and policymakers must be reduced. This will not be easy. Because one thing is clear: Halving the use of pesticides will also halve the sales of pesticide by big companies like Bayer, Syngenta or Corteva on the European market. For these companies billions are at stake.
It is therefore not surprising that big industries like Syngenta, Bayer or Corteva, while talking a big talk about supporting the Green Deal, in reality pull out all the stops to torpedo its measures, by sponsoring webinars and having them hosted by influential media, by placing ads there and – most importantly – paying scientists from prestigious universities to conduct one-sided impact assessments, which then warn of negative impacts on the economy and food security in order to influence decision makers in the parliament and the member states of the EU.
And yes, it is very important to expose these industry tactics, as NGOs like Lobby watch dog CEO have done repeatedly.
«The goal is an agriculture that has ended its dependence on pesticides and also on other chemical inputs, like synthetic fertilizers, as far as possible»
1.1 million Europeans are calling for an end to the use of pesticides through the European citizens’ initiative “Save Bees & Farmers”. Is social and political awareness finally awakening?
Yes, it looks like it is. Over the last decade, a significant number of citizen movements across the EU have emerged to oppose pesticides – and the model of intensive agriculture which is destroying biodiversity. Already before we had started our initiative, there was a much-debated but successful local referendum organised in the South Tyrol village of Mals for a ban of all synthetic pesticides; 1.7 million citizens in Bavaria signed an initiative to save bees; regular “Stop pesticides” protests in Italy; and finally the “We want poppies” monthly actions throughout France: Citizens are demonstrating to their politicians they do not support current environmental, agricultural and pesticides policies.
You are part of the Global 2000 organization. Why was it created in 1982? What are its main lines of action?
Global 2000 was founded by a group of young people who, in the early 1980s, felt that a needed to change the way we dealt with our environment. The inspiration for the name came from the environmental study of the same name commissioned by US President Jimmy Carter and published in German in 1981 under the title “Time for Action.”
Is the veto on synthetic pesticides the first step towards a more diverse and sustainable agriculture?
What is currently on the politcal agenda is not a veto but only a halving of pesticide use and risk. However, this is a bold first step. The goal is an agriculture that has ended its dependence on pesticides and also on other chemical inputs, like synthetic fertilizers, as far as possible.
Author: Ariadna Coma, Journalist.
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