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Europeans Want Cheap, Pesticide-Free Food; Industry Campaign Says It Can’t Be Done

Do Europeans have unreasonable expectations for the agriculture industry? New poll results suggest that 91 percent of consumers think food should remain affordable, but just 54 percent think that farmers should be able to use pesticides to keep prices down.

Do Europeans have unreasonable expectations for the agriculture industry? New poll results suggest that 91 percent of consumers think food should remain affordable, but just 54 percent think that farmers should be able to use pesticides to keep prices down.

The findings, from a YouGov Plc online survey, reflect the responses of 5,631 adults in the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Poland from early April 2016. The survey was commissioned by the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), an organization that represents crop protection industry interests across Europe with corporate members including Adama Agricultural Solutions, BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont, Monsanto, and Syngenta.

In response to the results, the ECPA launched a campaign, “With or Without,” defending the role of agri-chemicals in an attempt to address consumers’ “negative perceptions.” The campaign asserts that fresh fruits and vegetables sold in Europe are safe from pesticide residues, citing that more than 97 percent of food samples contained pesticide residue levels that fell within legal limits according to a 2013 report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In defense that pesticides are necessary for maintaining high crop yields, the ECPA claims that up to 40 percent of global crop yields are lost to pests and diseases every year and that those losses could double without pesticides. The ECPA also cites a 2011 report from The Andersons Centre which found that without the use of pesticides, onion yields in the UK would decrease by 50 percent. The organization invites consumers to get involved in the debate on Twitter using the hashtag #WithOrWithout.

“If farmers cannot protect their crops, cost will inevitably increase,” Graeme Taylor, a spokesperson for the pesticides industry said at an event on the future of European farming where the survey results were released.

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“Consumers expect – and deserve – to have access to safe and affordable food of good quality. To continue to be able to produce sufficient quantities of quality crops requires sustainable use of pesticides,” Taylor said. “This research shows however that consumers do not appreciate the magnitude of what is at stake if farmers don’t have access to innovative solutions like pesticides to protect their crops.”

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has evaluated glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” based on “limited evidence in humans” and “sufficient evidence in experimental animals” for the carcinogenicity of glyphosate. The EFSA, however, concluded that it is “unlikely” that glyphosate is carcinogenic in a ‘re-assessment’ of the chemical in light of the IARC’s report. As one might expect, Monsanto disagreed with the former and applauded the latter (glyphosate is the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup). Environmental groups such as the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) hold the opposite opinion, and have suggested that the EFSA’s evaluation was too heavily influenced by Monsanto-funded research.

Traces of glyphosate have been found in numerous food products, including two in every three loaves of bread sold in the UK. Studies have also found it in human urine samples across Europe; one study (press release in German) from the Heinrich Böll Foundation found glyphosate contamination in the urine samples of 99.6 percent of 2,009 German study participants.

A separate YouGov poll from April 2016, commissioned by public interest groups Campact e.V. and weMove.EU, showed that 64 percent of citizens believe the European Union (EU) should ban the use of glyphosate while just 9 percent support its use. 7,074 people in 5 EU countries were surveyed. Those in Italy (76 percent) and Germany (70 percent) were the most in favor of a ban and those in Spain and the UK (56 percent in each) were the least supportive of a ban; France was in the middle with 60 percent in favor of a ban.

The poll commissioned by the ECPA does not distinguish between glyphosate and pesticides that have been unanimously deemed safe by health and research authorities. However, as the differences in responses between the two YouGov-fielded polls demonstrates, people feel more strongly about glyphosate than they do about pesticides as a whole. A great example of this disparity is reflected in the responses from Germans: 70 percent were in favor of banning glyphosate in the Campact/weMove poll, while 46 percent were supportive of farmers using pesticides to keep food affordable, according to the ECPA poll.

Of course, the fact that an industry group commissioned the ECPA poll and is running the “With or Without” campaign calls for some skepticism; the organization’s interpretations of the survey results should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, the ECPA claims that consumers “underestimate the severity of the global food challenge,” citing that only 4 percent of those surveyed correctly estimated that world food production must increase by 60 percent by 2050, and 61 percent of the respondents underestimated the amount. While an increase of 60 percent by 2050 is indeed the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s estimate, the FAO noted that, “This is a smaller increase than the agriculture sector has achieved over the past half century, but still raises concerns about how it can be achieved sustainably.” (The annual demand growth is expected to be 1.1 percent per annum.) Furthermore, in the FAO’s full report, the authors stipulated that “the percent increase in the aggregate volume is not a very meaningful indicator,” (page 7) since it adds together very dissimilar products using price weights for aggregation.

There is indeed a pressing need to increase global agricultural production to satiate our planet’s growing population. Pesticides indeed help protect against crop losses and will likely remain necessary in agriculture for years to come. But it is important to recognize that not all pesticides are created equally and that there are many other factors which may contribute to ‘closing the food gap’ and increasing global food supply, such as dietary shifts, reducing food waste, alternative sources of protein, and new sources of both fish and livestock feed.