European agriculture is pesticide-intensive, relying on a vast amount of health-harming substances that science has linked to cancer, negative effects on children’s healthy development, hormone disruption, reproductive disorders, and other serious health impacts.

For people’s health, it is crucial that the EU Sustainable Use of Pesticides (SUR) regulation is agreed upon without delay. The much needed health update of EU pesticide rules will bring major benefits for people, starting with farmers, the economy, and our planet.

Pesticides are harmful by design. The body of evidence on how pesticides impact people’s health and the environment has steadily grown, underlining the need to act. Exposure to pesticides in our food, air, drinking water and the wider environment can increase the risk of cancers and infertility, harm children’s healthy development and disrupt the body’s natural hormone system. Farmers and agricultural workers are among those most at risk from pesticide pollution. 

It is estimated that globally, 385 million unintentional pesticide poisonings happen each year, resulting in 11,000 deaths. Health costs associated with exposure to pesticides and other chemical substances exceeded 10% of the global GDP. On a European scale, the societal costs directly attributable to pesticides were around €2.3 billion in 2017

To better understand human exposure to pesticides in Europe, the European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU) conducted a large-scale human biomonitoring survey in adults and children across five European countries between 2014 and 2021. The result? A total of 46 pesticides and their metabolites were identified, with at least two pesticides detected in 84% of the samples collected.

Global concern about hazardous pesticides and the harm they may pose to people and the environment is also on the rise: in Europe alone, over 1.1 million people are demanding EU decision makers to ban harmful pesticides and support an environmentally-friendly agriculture for sustainable production of healthy food. 

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The introduction of legally-binding, EU-wide pesticide reduction targets

With the EU Green Deal, the European Union has committed to achieving a healthy planet for healthy people, which includes climate neutrality and the halt of environmental degradation. Making the EU’s current agricultural production more sustainable and healthier is a building block of the Green Deal. As part of the implementation of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy and its pesticide reduction targets, the European Commission launched a proposal for a new Sustainable Use of Pesticides (SUR) regulation in June 2022. This proposal is the first and very important step towards an effective and coherent pesticide reduction policy.

Its main proposed measures include: 

  • Legally binding targets at EU level to reduce by 50% the use and risk of chemical pesticides as well as the use of more hazardous pesticides by 2030. 
  • The introduction of an environmentally friendly pest control system which focuses on pest prevention and prioritises alternative pest control methods, with chemical pesticides only used as a last resort. 
  • A ban on the use of all pesticides in sensitive areas such as public parks and gardens, playgrounds and public paths. 

This proposal for a new Sustainable Use of Pesticides regulation is set to replace the 2009 Sustainable Use of Pesticides directive, as this piece of law has had major shortcomings when it comes to reducing pesticide use. 

Strengthening health protection in the draft new law: HEAL’s demands

Despite progress in some EU member states on use reduction, pesticide pollution still poses significant risks to human health and the environment, according to a recent report from the European Environment Agency. Pesticide pollution continues to be a key driver for biodiversity loss, and increasing scientific research shows that current pesticide reduction measures put in place by some European countries fail to protect vulnerable groups. This is especially worrying considering that the European Commission’s proposal for a new SUR is less stringent than the rules already being implemented by some regional governments, like the ones put in place by the regional government of Bolzano-South Tyrol.  

It is critical that the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (SUR) regulation is adopted without delay to ensure the much-needed agricultural transformation towards a healthier and more sustainable agricultural system in Europe. 

HEAL has laid out three demands for the SUR to meet in order to protect health and the environment: 

Demand 1: Swiftly negotiate a legally-binding, health-first update of EU pesticides rules to protect current and future generations

Pesticides used in the EU’s agricultural production are a major health threat, and the body of scientific evidence on how hazardous pesticides harm our health keeps on growing. The scientific community has repeatedly underlined the need for action, with the most recent example being the 3,300 scientists from across Europe that have come out in support of the SUR, stating it is “a cornerstone of food security and human health”.   

Shelving the draft SUR proposal would not only be a disservice to farmers and people’s health, but also a missed opportunity to tackle the immense health costs associated with exposure to pesticides and other chemical substances. To prevent further serious health impacts and to safeguard the health of current and future generations, EU decision makers need to adopt the legally-binding SUR without delay. 

Demand 2: End the use of hazardous pesticides by 2035

Both the European Commission and member states should set clear and measurable targets to reduce Europe’s dependency on chemical pesticides. HEAL and the 1 million supporters of the Save Bees and Farmers petition call for a 80% gradual reduction of the use of synthetic pesticides by 2030, aiming at a total phase out by 2035. 

Alternatives to some of the most harmful pesticides, such as glyphosate, are already available and show a transition to a pesticide-free future is possible.

These targets should take into consideration the human and environmental health impacts and protection of biodiversity.

Demand 3: Create pesticide-free areas and adequate buffer zones

The SUR should ensure harmful pesticides are explicitly banned in sensitive areas used by the general public or by vulnerable groups, including public parks and gardens, sports and recreational grounds, school grounds, children’s playgrounds, and around healthcare facilities. Additionally, pesticide-free buffer zones of 50 or 100 metres, depending on the sensitive area in question, should be introduced.  

Read about our demands in more detail by visiting HEAL’s position paper on the public consultation on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directives, published in April 2021.