30th Mar 2023


Big Agri's EU lobbying playbook on 'hunger' and a 'refugee crisis'

  • Major players in the agribusiness industry spent over €50m on lobbying both EU officials and the public in 2020 and 2021 (Photo: James Baltz/Unsplash)
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Over the last few decades, the fossil fuel industry has shown that you do not need to all-out oppose legislation in order to resist it. Muddying the waters can be enough to ensure that action is paused, watered down, or shelved.

It is a lesson that pesticide companies appear to have learnt in Europe. Over the last two years, they have employed an allied army of lobbyists to sow doubt about farming reforms that — if enacted — could cost them millions.

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Since 2020, the EU has announced bold plans that could transform the future of farming. The call — for less toxic pesticides and fertilisers, more organic production, and leaving land for nature — is part of a wider package aimed at bringing down the bloc's greenhouse emissions and helping protect Europe's ailing pollinators, birds and butterflies.

In December 2022, decision-makers hit pause on laws that would see pesticides reduced by 50 percent — the latest in a series of delays.

Research by DeSmog has found that policymakers are turning away from promises of greener farming after a sustained lobby campaign by an industry that is reliant on EU markets for its products.

We analysed over 300 documents published since 2020. Our study looked at public documents and those from discussions behind closed doors, including minutes of meetings with senior EU officials obtained by Freedom of Information requests.

The cache of files shows a coordinated and concerted effort by the pesticide industry, and its allies in the agribusiness sector, to slow down implementation of green measures.

Our research also reveals how industrial agriculture is repurposing tried and tested tactics from the fossil-fuel industry — from funding their own science to promoting voluntary industry-led solutions in place of regulation — which has successfully delayed the clean energy transition to date.

Intensive lobby campaign

Major players in the agribusiness industry spent over €50m on lobbying both EU officials and the public in 2020 and 2021. They included some of the world's largest pesticide, fertiliser, commercial seed, and agricultural companies — such as Bayer and Syngenta — as well as several powerful trade bodies — such as pesticide lobby CropLife Europe and farm union Copa-Cogeca.

DeSmog's analysis found that these industries had promoted a handful of key messages on farming reforms — on repeat.

Nature-friendly laws threaten Europe's prosperity, ignore science and undermine global food security, industry warns.

The pesticide giant Syngenta claims "more people [could] go hungry" while a representative of industrial farm lobby Copa-Cogeca warns that pushing green reforms risks political unrest and even a refugee "crisis".

Companies and trade groups issue these warnings in public consultations, at conferences, at meetings with influential politicians and civil servants, in media statements and social media posts.

The underlying message — that the political, economic and social costs of transition are too high — parallels that used by oil and gas companies to stymie climate laws for decades.

Experts and scientists insist that such messages are at best, "misrepresentations", and at worst "grossly misleading". They point out that chemical-based intensive farming is the key driver of biodiversity collapse: the cost of failing to act on the extinction crisis far outweighs any predicted negative impacts of green reforms.

Yet, the industrial agriculture lobby has insisted that more information is needed about the likely cost of plans, before decisions should be made. It has called for detailed 'impact assessments' of proposed laws, first in light of Covid-19 and now in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

According to Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor at New York University and author of The Playbook, a book documenting lobby tactics, the tactic is familiar from the fossil fuel lobby. "The number one call industry makes is always for more research. It buys more time to prevent regulations".

Big Ag is powerful. The four largest pesticide companies alone — Bayer, Syngenta, Corteva and BASF — have sales of over €30bn every year. Its extended influence means that policymakers hear these messages on repeat.

The four pesticide giants are represented by separate trade bodies for fertilisers, seeds and chemicals, as well as for pesticides. Between them, these four trade groups employ over a hundred lobbyists in Brussels.

Membership of these trade associations allows industry to secure multiple seats at the table. The lobby runs public messaging campaigns, sits on expert groups advising the European Commission, and submits independent responses to consultations on new laws, which reiterate the companies' positions.

Sowing doubt

By complicating these discussions and misleading policymakers, pesticide companies and their allies are able to buy valuable time.

In December, when European countries called for more information on the impacts of the 'SUR' legislation — regulations which would write 50 percent pesticide reduction targets into law — their position was uncannily close to industry demands.

For now, reform is delayed once again. But in time, it may be shelved altogether. If negotiations on SUR stretch out beyond the election of a new commission in 2024, there's a chance the legislation might never see the light of day.

Scientists and campaigners warn that we cannot afford to wait. Numbers of bees and pollinators are plummeting in Europe, and soil health is in collapse — both essential to the future of farming — in part due to intensive farming. Decisions made now about whether and when to reform farming are key to safeguarding the future of biodiversity, the climate, and our food supply.

Author bio

Clare Carlile is a researcher and reporter at Desmog, focusing on food and farming. DeSmog is an environmental investigative journalism organisation, writing on climate accountability. It exposes the misinformation and vested interests that are eroding public understanding and political action to address the environmental crises.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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