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Pesticides: how does organic compare to conventional?

No chemical-synthetic pesticides are used in organic farming. Research on organic products shows structurally fewer pesticide residues than on conventional products; this is one of the reasons why manufacturers of baby food usually opt for organic products, because babies are particularly sensitive to the effects of pesticide residue. But that does not mean that there is no spraying at all in organic farming. In addition to employing natural enemies (such as parasitic wasps) and preventive measures (soil life, biodiversity, crop rotation), organic farming also uses natural resources such as plant extracts. In the meantime, the chemical lobby is trying to limit the use of natural resources and to play down the negative effects of chemical substances. Below we will discuss some aspects of this complex issue. 

By 2030, the Netherlands wants agriculture to be chemistry-free and nature-inclusive

Support for agricultural chemistry is declining in Europe. Not only because more and more harmful effects have become visible over the course of decades, but also because sustainable innovation is showing more and more ways to reduce the use of chemistry. Organic farming has been a forerunner and inspiration in this for decades. All kinds of techniques that are also gaining ground in traditional farming, such as the use of natural crop protection and natural enemies, or stimulating the role of soil life, all come from ecological farming. 

In 2017, the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality commissioned the University of Wageningen to work on a policy for Green Crop Protection. The targets for 2030 are a 'sharp reduction in dependence' on chemical pesticides, combined with 'nature-inclusive agriculture'. However, the government does want the Netherlands' agricultural position to remain strong; and if chemical substances are still needed for this agro-position in 2030, this will be permitted, provided that no substances with a high-risk profile are used. 

It is clear that this ambition is similar to what organic farming has been achieving for years. It is also understandable that agro-chemistry is concerned about this development. The direction is clear: chemistry in agriculture must be phased out.

Will that mean caterpillars in my lettuce?

The time when you regularly found caterpillars in your organic lettuce ended forty years ago. In the early days, the organic food stores accepted, for idealistic reasons, that products were less attractive. At the time, the pesticides in agriculture were so plentiful that it was better to eat ten organic caterpillars than a lettuce leaf. But now the organic sector has become so professional that the products usually look as beautiful as they taste. And if you still encounter a bug, it's easy to wash it off, unlike agricultural poison. 

Plants also contain natural toxins, don't they?

It is true that some food crops also contain small amounts of natural toxins. For example, plants that belong to the nightshade family, such as tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines, contain natural toxins of the glycoalkaloid class. In the stem, leaves and eyes of potatoes you will find solanine, a quite poisonous substance. But you would have to eat more than six kilos of peeled potatoes before you get sick. It is unlikely that natural toxins will make you ill. Fruit and vegetables have been improved for the absence of toxins, and the production methods are aimed at avoiding these substances. In addition, we are evolutionarily equipped to process many such substances. This does not apply to chemically-synthetic toxins, because we have not experienced them before in our evolution. Why should we add unnatural toxins to what is already present in nature?

Are all EU-approved products safe?

In Europe, the use of pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides) is controlled by EFSA. This is based on scientific research. It should be noted, however, that scientific knowledge sometimes lags behind the facts and that the industry produces many scientific reports. The chemical lobby is one of the largest lobbies in Brussels and accounts for millions of euros. European civil servants make structural use of the services of lobbyists. Scientific objectivity is not affected by this, or at least shouldn’t be affected by this, but decision-making processes can be influenced.

Approved and harmful (1): neonicotinoids 

In practice, EU approval does not provide any guarantee that a substance is indeed harmless. The EU has approved the use of neonicotinoids for many years. These are so-called systemic insecticides, which are applied to the seeds and remain present in the adult plant. They are not used for control purposes, but as a preventive measure. This has contributed to the explosive increase in the use of neonicotinoids in the EU and the US since the 1990s. It has now become clear that these substances have a dramatic impact on bees, other insects and even the bird populations of Europe. In Germany, for example, the insect population has plummeted by 76%, which is linked to the use of pesticides, including neonicotinoids. Because of this, many people are now in favour of banning neonicotionoids throughout Europe. Research into the dangers of neonicotionoids has been publicly available since 2010, but the pesticide lobby has been resisting a ban. Meanwhile, EFSA has also taken a formal stance against neonicotinoids because they are harmful to bees. Three types of neonicotinoid - imidacloprid, clothianidin en thiamethoxam - will be forbidden from 2019 onwards.

Approved and harmful (2): Glyphosate

We see a similar kind of discussion concerning the "kill-it-all" herbicide glyphosate (Roundup). This substance affects aquatic life and, according to the WHO, is carcinogenic. It is used in very large quantities and can be found in the urine of most Europeans. The worldwide use of glyphosate has increased explosively, particularly since the introduction of genetically engineered crops. According to the WHO, it is carcinogenic. Despite widespread protests in several European countries, such as France, EFSA takes the view that the substance is safe. It has come to light that EFSA has literally taken over texts from producers in its risk assessment. In 2017, the use of glyphosate was approved by the EU for another 5 years. 

Cumulative effects not included in risk assessment

Anyone in the Netherlands who eats in accordance with the guidelines of the national Nutrition Centre ingests 20 types of pesticides a day. These approved products should not be a health hazard if they are used in agriculture responsibly. In the case of glyphosate, this is already highly controversial. However, the European risk analyses do not take the cumulative effects into account: certain pesticides may not cause any harm to humans if exposed below the standard; however, it is quite possible that the cumulative effect of several pesticide residues, that are each below the standard, will be harmful when taken together. In addition, fruit and vegetables containing residues in excess of the permitted standard are regularly found on samples. EFSA is working on new ways of taking cumulative effects into account, but so far these have not been put into practice.

Major risks for children and foetuses

Research shows that children up to the age of 7 are much less resistant to pesticides. Until recently, it was thought that the immune system from the age of 2 years was strong enough to process small amounts of pesticides, but this age limit has now been extended to 7 years. Exposure to pesticides can lead to developmental delays and health problems in children. Furthermore, in rural areas with a lot of chemical agriculture, children have an increased risk of birth defects.

What is the European lobby like?

The agro-chemical industry spends millions on European lobbying to minimise the negative effects of chemicals and to discredit or prevent the use of natural resources through legislation. It is estimated that a total of 15,000 lobbyists are active in Brussels. It is estimated that more than a thousand trade associations, 750 non-governmental organisations, 500 commercial companies, 150 regional authorities and 130 specialised (mostly British/U.S.) law firms are active in Brussels. In total, it is estimated that over EUR 1 billion per year is spent on lobbying in Brussels. Entire pieces of European legislation literally have been drafted by lobbyists. This is not only a negative thing, though: EU civil servants cannot know everything, and lobbyists often serve as think tanks that provide factual information.

Unhealthy relationship between EU lawmakers and stakeholders

There are dangers here.  For example, in 2015, lobbyists from the chemical industry were able to block and delay the European Union's REACH directive against the use of endocrine disrupters in a variety of ways. Brussels insiders speak of the biggest lobbying campaign in the history of the European Union.  According to the Corporate Europe Observatory: The 'Brussels bubble' leads to an unhealthy relationship between lawmakers and those who are the subject of these laws. There are 'revolving doors' between the European Commission and the business community at large. 

Natural agents... just as dangerous?

Green products generally break down more quickly and cause less pollution than chemical pesticides, according to the Dutch Centre for Agriculture and the Environment (CLM). Biological agents also usually contain various substances, which makes insects less likely to develop resistance to them. At the same time, there is a great need for farmers to use greener agents. Until a few years ago, low-risk natural products (such as beer, cow's milk and plant extracts) were simply permitted in Dutch agriculture, without being subject to heavy and costly European approval procedures. That is quite justifiable. Substances that occur naturally, are fit for human consumption and are readily biodegradable cannot possibly be considered hazardous in a living farming system.

Stopping harmless green products

Unfortunately, European legislation has made it much more difficult to use products that everyone believes to be harmless - such as milk, beer or green soap. Sweet pepper growers have been using skimmed milk in their pruning and harvesting processes for decades. By immersing their hands and tools in it, they prevent the transmission of any virus from the juice of one paprika plant to another plant. Until a few years ago, regulations in the Netherlands simply allowed such low-risk green products to be used. However, those regulations did not comply with the European plant protection regulation introduced in 2011, which now makes it much more difficult to grant or renew authorisations for low-risk products. ‘It is inexplicable that you can eat garlic and yeast extracts, for example, but you cannot use them as crop protection in the fields,' says Dutch MEP Annie Schreijer-Pierik, who is committed to changing the situation that has arisen in Europe. 

Legislation disadvantages small-scale and sustainable businesses

In this way, the agro-chemical industry has got what it wanted. Legislation is used to squeeze small competitors out of the market and to prevent small-scale competitive sustainable innovation. It is difficult for them to pay for European procedures of this kind. It is no surprise that 150 law firms are actively lobbying in Brussels; large companies use the law to anticipate events twenty years ahead. With legislation, they create an environment in which small players no longer have a chance. The consequences of this have been felt for years by small organic seed breeding companies and can now also be felt by farmers who want to use natural resources. This hampers the development of, research into, and deployment of existing natural resources. After all, natural resources cannot be subject to intellectual property rights such as chemical-synthetics. The costs of expensive admission procedures are not offset by income from patents and exclusive rights of use. In practice this means that almost exclusively large companies such as BASF, Bayer-Monsanto and Syngenta are still in a position to develop and market new products; a highly undesirable situation from a sustainability point of view. 

Natural resources can also be harmful

Green products are often safer for people and the environment, but that is not necessarily the case. Although there are fewer substances used in organic farming, there are some substances that pose a risk to the environment. It should be noted that the arsenal of pesticides is much more limited than in conventional cultivation. Despite this, organic farming is not yet 'finished'. 

In organic farming, for example, the substance Pyrethrine may be used, a plant extract that kills all kinds of insects. It also kills beneficial insects such as bees. For mammals and birds, it is much less harmful than many synthetic insecticides. Pyrethrin is quickly broken down under the influence of light, so there are no harmful residues left behind. However, in order to extend the duration of effectiveness, a substance (piperonyl butoxide) is added. According to most research, this substance is low-toxic, but according to new research from 2011 it can have a negative effect on the development of children. In the Netherlands, the sales of Pyrethrin with PBO has now been forbidden. In Europe, the organic umbrella organisation IFOAM-EU is now pleading for a European ban on this substance. The organic sector has also developed a safer alternative, pyrethrine with rapeseed oil.

Spinosad is also used in organic farming and is used to combat cabbage fly. It is produced by a bacterium. It is harmless for the useful ladybirds, assassin bugs and predatory mites, but is very toxic for bees. It is therefore preferably applied at ground level so that it does not affect bees. Spinosad is quickly broken down on the leaves of the plants, but more slowly in water. It is moderately toxic to toxic for earthworms, fish and aquatic organisms. It is therefore not good for the soil either. According to the WHO, the health risk to people is minimal.

A third substance of concern is copper sulphate, which affects soil life and, in particular, kills earthworms if used in excessive quantities. On the other hand, plants and animals also need copper. Here, too, the health risk to people is low. With regards to copper sulphate, the organic sector is busy developing better alternatives.

A biological agent that turned out to be harmful to humans is Rotenon, a plant extract that was used against caterpillars. When the harmful effects became apparent, this agent was abolished in the Netherlands. Since 2007, it has no longer been permitted in Europe, either in organic or in conventional agriculture.

Promising development: microbiome instead of chemistry

It has been known by organic farmers for decades: soil is a living environment for billions of bacteria, viruses and fungi, which are important for plant health; healthy soil biodiversity creates all kinds of symbiotic processes that create a living environment in which plants can thrive. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness in both the agricultural and medical sciences that this microbiome plays a decisive role in resistance to diseases and pests - for animals, people and plants alike. In short: if the plant is growing in a soil with an impoverished soil life, it becomes ill more quickly, and is more susceptible to pests. In conventional agriculture, there is now a growing interest in using specific bacteria or fungi to combat harmful diseases. Organic farming has been doing the same for years, but in an ecological way, by stimulating the whole of soil life.

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