Crop protection products – time for joint action
Our food supply is not something that can be taken for granted. We often lose sight of that fact because most people in affluent countries no longer feel the effects of crop failures as directly as their grandparents and great-grandparents. A rapidly growing and increasingly prosperous world population is posing new challenges for agricultural production. At the same time, the industry is confronted with growing problems due to climate change. We need effective crop protection products to fight weeds, insect pests and plant diseases, so that we can produce sufficient food on less farmland in the future.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that between 20 and 40% of harvests are lost each year. According to FAO statistics, crop losses due to plant diseases exceed US$220 billion annually, while insects contribute to more than €70 billion in damages. Without innovative crop protection, it will not be possible to meet the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 – cutting global food waste in half. Crop failures force many low- and middle-income countries to use valuable foreign exchange reserves for food imports rather than investing in sensible development.
It is also a reality, however, that rural communities in less affluent regions of the world often have at best older, less effective crop protection products at their disposal that can be damaging to health when used improperly. What’s more, older crop protection products have a more negative environmental impact on biodiversity and water than newer-generation active substances. That’s why our industry, including Bayer, is criticized for its approach to and export of certain crop protection products. We want to learn from that criticism in an open and transparent dialogue and change not just our business practices, but also industry standards and statutory regulations in order to improve these problems without jeopardizing harvests.
The sweeping, dogmatic condemnation of crop protection products doesn’t account for reality. Good, useful and safe active substances must be clearly distinguishable from those that genuinely present a risk. A fundamental rejection doesn’t solve anything. For example, what if an entire wheat harvest were to fall victim to fungal infestation in Russia because the NGOs are overshooting the target? The biggest importers of wheat are Indonesia, Nigeria and Egypt. Without crop protection, it would be necessary to drastically expand the amount of land under cultivation – and it would be impossible to feed eight billion people even if meat consumption were to fall dramatically contrary to all expected trends and if new breeding methods were universally accepted.
We agree with many of our critical stakeholders that the aims should be to apply the highest safety standards for farm workers and consumers and to reduce adverse effects on biodiversity. These aims can be achieved through more common ground. We believe it is important here that all parties take scientific data seriously when searching for solutions, particularly if it contradicts one’s own worldview. And we are prepared to do that.
We are disturbed, for example, by the practice of invoking against one’s better knowledge incorrect data such as the oft-cited figure of 200,000 deaths annually worldwide in connection with the use of pesticides. This number is an extrapolation based on an outdated local study conducted in Sri Lanka, and was debunked long ago. We cannot understand why false assertions are made – such as in the most recent study on double standards that was published by Inkota, PAN and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (Link Twitter-Thread – German only).
Our approach can be summarized in just a few points:
Transparency as regards safety standards
Since the beginning of the last decade and with increased frequency since 2019, we have engaged in intensive discourse with nongovernmental organizations to better understand their criticism of our business with crop protection products. The essence of this criticism is that the most dangerous and outdated substances are sold particularly in countries where the protective equipment to minimize risks is unavailable. As a result, our Crop Science Division a few weeks ago published our internal safety standards for crop protection products. We are the first company to make these criteria available to the public. Our internal safety standards for crop protection products reflect the guidelines and standards of international organizations like the FAO, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as those of various regulatory authorities around the world. Above all, however, they will henceforth reflect the reality of local areas of application rather than the desirable conditions.
We continuously evolve these standards based on the latest scientific knowledge and apply them worldwide – including in countries where lower safety standards prevail. We stopped selling products classified under WHO toxicity level 1 as long ago as 2012. We want to use our influence to prompt our industry, or at least research-based companies, to apply similarly high standards. That won’t be easy because most of our competitors still haven’t followed our example with this voluntary commitment one decade later. Based on the standards published in the first quarter of 2021, therefore, we will advocate that regulators tighten the registration requirements.
No double standards – but scrutiny of exports
It’s not automatically a double standard if we export crop protection products that are not registered in Europe to other countries. We advocate greater differentiation rather than a sweeping ban on exports: the European Union must face up to two realities. The first is that in some cases, we have different requirements on other continents due to insect pests, climatic conditions or crop diseases that do not (yet) play a substantial role in our part of the world. For example, last year an insecticide that is not registered in the E.U. was successfully deployed in East Africa to combat a massive locust infestation and thus safeguard the livelihood of more than 30 million people. It was produced in France and then exported, which would no longer be possible next year – thus preventing rapid assistance during a locust plague. Our Antracol fungicide is another example of how some active substances aren’t registered in the E.U. because problems related to the fungal infestation of certain plants do not occur here. Despite stringent environmental regulations, its use is permitted in Japan and Australia because there is no alternative. We have invested in modern production facilities, as is currently the case in Dormagen, and in improved formulation. This hints at the second reality: the active substances in question often do not have patent protection. An exclusive export ban in the E.U. would only result in production being shifted to other regions and restrict the opportunities to improve living conditions in rural areas currently marked by extreme poverty through cooperation between industry, developmental aid organizations and politicians. Along the guidelines that represent these two realities, Bayer sees flexibility to more closely scrutinize E.U. exports.
Modernization of our portfolio
As announced in 2019, we undertook a detailed analysis of our entire active substance portfolio and decided to remove a number of substances from the market because more innovative alternatives are available – in some cases from our competitors. We will cooperate with local regulators to rescind registrations so as to make it more difficult for other producers to exploit the resulting gap. One example is carbendazim, which we stopped selling as of January 1, 2021.
Working together for a safe food supply
Society cannot afford to continually fall back into the old oppositions in this debate – the pressure on the food system is too high and the time needed to develop new solutions is too limited for that. It is not possible to feed the whole world through organic farming. Agricultural policy therefore must not create a situation in which a growing world population is ultimately confronted with declining crop yields. At Bayer we work to protect crops while reducing the burden on the environment; in this connection, we advance digital farming technologies and develop biological products and improved seeds. We invested nearly two billion in research and development at Crop Science in 2020 alone. Since 2007, we have launched 15 new active substances with outstanding environmental and safety profiles.
We are willing to learn – including through cooperation with stakeholders who view us critically. We therefore look forward to a continued dialogue with nongovernmental organizations, the retail industry and politicians.