4th Dec 2023

Scientists condemn 'misinformation' used to attack EU nature reforms

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More than 3,000 scientists have rejected claims that EU plans to curb pesticide use and restore nature will harm food security and farmers in an open letter to MEPs.

In recent months, the industrial farming lobby and the European People's Party (EPP), the largest right-wing party in the EU, have been at the forefront of pushback against green legislation. The EPP has called for a halt to proposed green farming reforms. They argue that the laws will cause a drop in EU food production and lead to widespread economic losses.

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But in an open letter published on Tuesday, 3,339 scientists allege that these arguments both "lack" and "contradict" scientific evidence.

"The biggest risks to food security stem from climate change and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services," said the letter, which was sent to all Members of the European Parliament. "We urge policy makers to continue the legislative procedure."

The letter — which did not mention EPP directly — comes at a decisive moment for the future of EU agriculture. The parliament's environment committee is poised to vote tomorrow (15 June) on nature restoration plans, which would see at least 20 percent of the EU's land, rivers and seas protected by 2030. The parliament's committees are expected to vote on pesticide laws (the "SUR regulation") from July.

"The EPP's misinformation campaign on the Nature Restoration Law and the Pesticide Regulation is extremely worrying," Clara Bourgin of Friends of the Earth Europe told DeSmog. "The EPP wants to pretend to be on farmers' side but are in reality defending a broken food system."

One of the letter's lead author's, Guy Pe'er, told Reuters: "Once policymakers are taking very confident steps into the world of misinformation and basically what we nowadays call fake news, then scientists have the authority to say 'stop'." In response to the letter, a spokesman from the EPP said: "There is much evidence that the proposals on SUR and Nature Restoration together would decrease European food production, even turn our export into import and increase the food prices. Furthermore the effect on climate change is minimal."

The letter's signatories maintained that they are keen to support an "evidence-based dialogue" at the EU and within member states.

Nature Under Pressure

Agriculture is currently responsible for over 10 percent of EU carbon emissions. It is also the leading cause of biodiversity loss in the world. More than 80 percent of habitats in the EU are considered to have poor conservation status.

The EU announced ambitious farming reforms in 2020. The raft of measures includes targets to dramatically reduce synthetic pesticide and fertiliser use, and to restore wildlife across land, rivers and oceans.

But the laws have been the subject of intense lobbying, and have run into growing political resistance. DeSmog revealed in December that pesticide firms — including Bayer and Syngenta — and powerful farming unions such as Copa-Cogeca were using misleading narratives to delay pesticide legislation.

The EPP has since called for laws to curb pesticides and restore nature to be scrapped. In May, the European Parliament's agriculture committee voted against nature restoration plans.

"We are standing on the edge of the cliff with biodiversity collapse and the rejection of the nature restoration law would be jumping into the void," the EU commissioner for the environment, oceans and fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, told The Guardian in May. "The rejection of the most ambitious proposal ever to restore nature would send a dangerous, negative signal to the world that the EU and its member states backtrack on commitments."

'Unjustified Attack'

Opponents of the legislation make a number of claims that are disputed by scientists. They claim that setting mandatory pesticide reduction targets for member states would lead to crop losses. EPP politicians and farming industry members also argue that nature restoration plans would stop land from being used for agriculture in the EU. They say that both measures harm farmers and food production.

Responding to these concerns, the letter — which was drafted by scientists at universities in Germany, the Netherlands and other EU Member States — highlighted the dangers of failing to curb pesticide use and degradation of nature. They cited the major risks to food and farming posed by climate breakdown and biodiversity loss, as well as the potential for a green transition to create more jobs.

In 2018, German farmers suffered €7-8 billion (£6-6.8 billion) in losses due to droughts caused by climate change. Overall Europe saw 5.3 million farms (37 percent) close between 2005 and 2020.

"Protecting and restoring nature, and reducing the use of agrochemicals and pollutants, are essential for maintaining long-term production and enhancing food security," the scientists write, adding that the proposed legislation "can create new employment opportunities and stimulate innovation."

The authors also pointed to the high social cost of impacts from unsustainable farming. The indirect environmental costs from all land use (including farming) in Germany are estimated at €100 billion (£85.5 billion) each year.

In a post on Twitter, Guy Pe'er — one of the authors of the letter and an academic at University of Leipzig — said attacks on the laws were "unjustified", and arguments were "based largely on misinformation."

The scientists also criticised claims that green legislation was reckless in light of disruption caused by Russia's war in Ukraine.

The short-term rise in EU prices did not reflect "any risk to food sovereignty or a need to enhance production," they said of industry claims. "Europe can contribute to food security by reducing the drivers of global food scarcity, such as high meat consumption and the use of biofuels."

Intensive Lobbying

The letter follows years of intensive lobbying by the pesticide, seed and industrial farming industries.

Claims that laws will impact yields have largely been based on five impact assessments funded by industry. CropLife Europe — a trade association representing Bayer, Syngenta and other major pesticide producers — paid over €100,000 (£85,000) for one study in October 2021, which predicted that food production would fall by 10-20 percent.

DeSmog reported last year that lobbyists for the sectors had promoted claims about harms posed by green legislation in newspapers, at conferences, and during private meetings with policymakers.

The industry-funded studies were widely criticised by campaigners and academics, for failing to incorporate either the expected benefits of green reforms and the costs of failing to take action on climate change or biodiversity loss.

DeSmog also revealed last year that Copa-Cogeca had told EU officials to revise and delay green farming reforms at what it termed a "critical moment" for food security due to the war in Ukraine.

Disputed Evidence

In response to the letter, the EPP cited two studies, which predicted reductions in agricultural production if green reforms are enacted.

These included a study commissioned by the Grain Club, an alliance of grain trade bodies in Germany, that predicted major losses for a number of products including cereals.

Another study shared by the EPP reviewed existing research on the impacts of reforms that predicted losses in agricultural production. However, the study concluded that the results of existing research reflected "the narrow focus of the analysis undertaken", and found that the claims that the reforms would harm the agricultural sector were "not supported".

Author bio

Clare Carlile is a researcher and reporter at DeSmog, focusing on the agri-business sector.

This story was originally published by DeSmog.

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