New objectives are needed for sustainable development and human health throughout the food chain
Advances in plant protection have contributed considerably to increasing agricultural yields and ensuring regular production. Easy to obtain and apply, and relatively inexpensive, chemical control products have been proved extremely efficient and reliable on large cropping areas.
With the development of these products, cropping systems have evolved to maximise production leading to agronomic practices that increase the risks of pests, weeds and diseases and consequently to a strong dependence on pesticides. Progressively, concerns about the negative impacts of chemicals on the environment have been expressed. Today, in most European countries, the systematic use of pesticides is questioned because of the awareness of undesirable negative effects on ecosystems, on non-targeted useful or domestic species, and on human health. This concern is also particularly strong for INCO countries and the outermost EU regions whose ecosystems are especially sensitive to the detrimental effects of pesticide applications.
Furthermore, new objectives are needed for sustainable development and human health: ensuring food safety throughout the food chain, protecting the health of industrial and agricultural workers, preserving natural resources, and ecological integrity and biodiversity. Some of the pesticides previously used are now being phased out because of concerns about their environmental impact and safety (for example, methyl bromide and organophosphates), or the development of resistance by target organisms (for example, benzimidazoles).
Increased consumer awareness about food safety and environmental issues has also accelerated the demand for pesticide reduction in conventional agriculture, with actions focusing on delivering tools such as decision support systems (DSS) and on technologies supporting precision agriculture.
Increasing awareness of the side effects of pesticides has resulted in the growth of organic farming and other low input systems. Organic farming is a very dynamic sector in EU agriculture, and has grown by 30% per year since 1998 even though the starting point was low and the situation remains diverse across EU countries.
According to the level of ambition in reducing the use of plant protection products (PPP), a diversity of plant protection systems is emerging throughout the EU. These systems range from tactical adaptations of currently existing cropping systems rationalising and reducing pesticide use, based on risk analysis and DSS, to strategic approaches where new cropping and farming systems are conceived, incorporating a number of alternative control methods, aimed at being less dependent on pesticide use.
Supporting these changes requires that new technologies and practices are offered to producers, which in turn demands additional, coherent and re-oriented efforts from the research community and the development institutions.
These efforts should be particularly oriented to three key complementary points:
Supporting these changes also necessitates new governance in plant protection policies and regulation. These necessary changes must be considered as common target goals in both developed and developing countries and should become a major aspect of agricultural research.