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agriculture and environment

Pesticides in the European Union

Stéphanie LUCAS, Maria PAU VALL (Eurostat)

There had been a sharply falling trend in the total volume of sales of agricultural pesticides in the EU between 1991 and 1995. However this was reversed in 1996. From 1991-1995, EU sales of pesticides, measured by weight of active ingredients (ai), fell by 13%. They then rose by 6% between 1995 and 1996 to stand at 299,826 tonnes ai. This still put them nearly 8% below the 1991 figure. The use of lower-dose pesticides has been a key contributor to the fall in weight of active ingredients sold in recent years. Fungicides are the biggest pesticide group used in the EU. They accounted for 41% of total weight of active ingredients in 1996, followed by herbicides (39%) and insecticides (12%). Care should be taken in making comparisons as the scope of the data might vary from one country to another. And a number of factors could affect figures from one year to the next: weather and the seasons, pest pressure, pesticide prices, land set-aside and policy changes.

In order to maintain healthy crops, farmers fight a constant battle against insects, fungi and plant diseases, as well as weeds which compete with the crops for water, nutrients and light, and which make harvesting more difficult. Perhaps the most important factor in pesticide use in agriculture (Box 1) is the weather, which has a major influence on the spread of plant diseases, fungi and insects. When deciding whether to treat his crop, a farmer will weigh up the cost of the potential crop loss against the cost of applying pesticides; therefore pesticide prices will also influence sales. Land taken out of use through set-aside schemes may also have some effect, though set-aside land is used to produce industrial crops, which also need to be treated against pests. Another significant factor has been the introduction of new, highly active, lower dose pesticides in recent years. 

Moreover, changes in national or european government policy can affect pesticide sales:

  • The 1992 CAP reform decreased significantly not only intervention prices but also market prices for cereals and oilseeds. This has contributed to the observed increasing awareness among farmers, which is leading to more precise methods of application and management techniques. In addition, significant quantities of land have been set-aside.
  • The prospect of higher taxes and the removal of some pesticides from the market in Sweden resulted in a 50% increase in the number of doses of pesticides sold to Swedish agriculture in 1994 compared to 1993;
  • the authorisation of mineral oil for use in organic farming under Council Regulation (EEC) N° 2092/91 has led to increased use of this active ingredient. In Austria mineral oil alone accounted for more than 50% of total volume of insecticides sold and in the Netherlands, mineral oil was the most used active ingredient in 1995.

The ‘Communication of the European Commission to the Council and to the Parlament on a European Community Biodiversity Strategy’ cites contamination of water resources and adverse effects on non-targeted species as among the impacts that pesticides can have on biodiversity, not only directly where they are applied but also in other ecosystems e.g. as a result of pesticide run-off.

The EU's Fifth Environmental Action Programme (5EAP) sets out a series of targets for the year 2000, including 'the significant reduction in pesticide use per unit of land under production, and conversion to methods of integrated pest control, at least in areas of importance for nature conservation'. Actions identified as necessary to reach the target are registration of sales and use of pesticides, and control of sales and use of pesticides. Both of these have been addressed by Directive 91/414/EEC, which concerns the authorisation, placing on the market and use of pesticides in the EU. 

The agri-environmental measures accompanying the CAP reform of 1992, as underlined in another article of this publication, contributes to integration of environmental concerns with those of the farming industry through substantial reductions in the use of pesticides, and encourages organic farming.

Between 1991 and 1995 sales of pesticides in EU countries fell sharply, though this trend was reversed in 1996

Overall EU sales of pesticides for use in agriculture (expressed in tonnes of active ingredient) fell by 13% between 1991 and 1995, see figure 1. This was followed by an increase of 6% in 1996, which still left 1996 sales figures 8% below 1991 for the EU as a whole. However the trend is not uniform. 

In general terms, a reduction in volumes of sales is observed, even if there are important differences between Member States. Many causes contribute to this evolution, such as:

  • Technological evolution and technical progress and in particular the introduction of low dose pesticides (All EU)
  • Price decrease following 1992 CAP reform (All EU).
  • New agri-environment regulation (see article "Impact of agri-environment measures)
  • Compulsory and voluntary set-aside as foreseen by the 1992 CAP reform (All EU).
  • National reform of agricultural policies (Sweden).
  • Drastic cut in agricultural prices following EU accession (Finland).
  • specific policies to reduce pesticide use (Austria, Denmark, Netherlands, Finland, Sweden)
  • Drought (Spain, but also regions of Portugal and Italy).
The greatest reduction in volume of sales between 1991 and 1996, were seen in Finland (- 46%), the Netherlands (- 43%), Austria (-21%), Denmark (- 21%) and Sweden (- 17%). Together these accounted for 6.5% of the total volume of sales in 1996. 

Significant decreases over this period were also recorded for more important markets, i.e. Italy (- 17%) Spain (- 15%), and France (- 11%), though in 1996 sales in Spain and France were up + 19% and + 11% respectively compared to 1995. 

France is by far the EU's most important market for pesticides in terms of weight, accounting for some 31% of pesticide sales in the EU in 1996, the same as in 1991. Italy, the second most important market, is a long way behind with 16% of the market, followed by UK (12%), Germany (12%) and Spain (11%).

Sales in the United Kingdom increased steadily between 1991 and 1996 (+ 22%), with a 6% increase in 1996 alone. In Germany sales fell by almost 20% between 1991 and 1994, but rose again in 1995 and 1996, to 5% below the 1991 level.

N.B. Data on pesticide sales are not yet totally harmonised for all countries. Care needs to be taken when comparing countries, as the coverage of the data may vary. For example in Belgium, France and Portugal, total sales include pesticides for use outside agriculture. Also the inclusion of certain products such as mineral oils and sulphuric acid in total pesticide sales may inflate the figures for the total amount of active ingredients sold.

Similarly changes over time within the same country have also to be evaluated cautiously because of the breaks in time series. For instance in Portugal the increase in sales noted between 1994 and 1995 is due mainly to the increase in the number of companies included in the survey since 1995.

Fungicides make up the largest pesticide group sold in EU 15, accounting for 41 % of total weight of active ingredients in 1996, followed by herbicides (39 %), insecticides (12 %) and other pesticides (8 %) (Figure 2). However the situation varies from one country to another due to different climatic conditions and different types of crops. In southern European countries (France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Greece), where fungal diseases are the main problem, fungicides dominate, whereas herbicides make up the largest group of pesticide sales for central and northern European countries.

The 5EAP target is for 'pesticide use per unit of land under production'. Using sales as a proxy for use, Figure 3 shows the use of pesticides per hectare of agricultural area, excluding permanent pastures and meadows.

It must be emphasised that overall pesticide use in kg of active ingredient/ha does not necessarily reflect the potential impact on the environment, which is influenced by the properties of the different pesticides involved, the method of application and other factors. A better picture could be formed if data on use of individual active ingredients were available. Moreover, data on use by crop would permit the effects of changes in the Common Agricultural Policy, such as changing cropping patterns, on pesticide use to be assessed. This kind of information can be collected via direct surveys to farmers.

At present only the Netherlands, Sweden, and United Kingdom carry out regular direct surveys to farmers on use of pesticides, based on a representative sample of agricultural holdings. The data gathered through such surveys allows the general trends for different crops to be highlighted (tonnes of active ingredients, kg/ha, treated area...), and is an important ingredient in developing indicators to measure the risk posed by pesticides to the environment.

Surveys of pesticide use in agriculture carried out in the Netherlands in 1995 show a decrease in total weight of active ingredients applied

In the Netherlands surveys of pesticide 1 use in agriculture 2 were carried out in 1992 and 1995 (Figure 4). Total pesticide use in agriculture by weight of active ingredient decreased by 5.4 % between this two dates and total area treated with pesticides decreased by nearly 2 %. The quantities of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides dropped by 11%, 16% and 10 % respectively. On the other hand, use of haulm killing products grew by 56% due to the introduction of a new product, which is used in higher doses. The use of more effective fungicides, which are used in smaller doses, on winter wheat and potatoes explains the decrease in fungicide use.

Most pesticides used in 1995 were on arable crops (seed potatoes, ware potatoes, potatoes for processing, sugar beet, and green maize) (Figure 5). This is not surprising as arable farming is the main use of agricultural land in the Netherlands. Considered sector by sector, the decrease in use (in terms of weight of active ingredient) since 1992 is significant for vegetables in the open (- 19 %), mushrooms (- 13 %), arable farming (- 12 %), and in nurseries (- 5 %). On the other hand, the sectors where crops have a short rotation period saw an important increase in use; these include vegetables under glass (+ 64 %), flower bulbs and tubers (+ 37 %), and flowers under glass (+ 12 %).

A different picture emerges when looking at use per hectare (Figure 6). Important reductions in use per hectare are seen for winter wheat (- 36%) and potatoes for consumption (- 33%) due to the introduction of more effective fungicides used in smaller doses, for wood and hedge plantations (- 55%), mainly because of restrictions on use of oil distillation residue, and for mushrooms (- 10%). The largest increase was for seed potatoes (+ 63%) following the introduction of a new haulm killer, to be applied in higher concentrations, and pears (+ 47%), subsequent to a higher scab pressure in 1995. 

The extremely high level of pesticide use on mushrooms, over 450 kg/ha in 1995 is due to the unique nature of mushroom growing which allows many crops in a single year.

Ranked by weight, mineral oil was the most heavily used active ingredient in 1995, followed by the fungicides maneb, mancozeb and captan. These, together with the herbicide atrazine, made up 45 % of total pesticide use in 1995. The most widely used insecticide was dimethoate (53 tonnes).

Increasing area under non-chemical control methods in the Netherlands 

In 1995, mechanical weed-control methods were extensively used in tree nurseries (used in 65% of the crop area). Mechanical weed-control was also used in 43% of the area devoted to vegetables in the open, mainly for chicory, lettuce and cabbage. Mechanical control in fodder maize also increased significantly: from 5% in 1992 to 25% in 1995.

By 1995 the area under biological control had increased since 1992, and all vegetables under glass were being treated with biological control methods. This does not mean that other pesticides were not used. The number of controlling predatory insects used had also increased. The average paprika farmer used seven different predators, while in 1992 only four species were used. In 1995 two billion insects were mad as biological pest control, 80% of these were predatory mites against thrips (Table 1).

Sweden: downward trend in agricultural pesticide use

In Sweden the 1995/96 survey of pesticide use covered arable crops. This survey showed a reduction of 46% in tonnes of active ingredient applied compared to 1990 (Figure 7). The largest reduction was for fungicides, down 63%, followed by insecticides (- 60%), other pesticides (- 52%) and herbicides (- 40%). Compared to the 1993/94 survey, total use of pesticides in 1995/96 had decreased by 15%. The area treated with herbicides and fungicides increased by 0.6% and 36% respectively since the 1993/94 survey, whereas the area treated with insecticides decreased by 35% over the same period.

The dominant crops are cereals and this is reflected in the overall amount of pesticides used on cereals (Figure 8). However in terms of use per hectare , cereals come close to the bottom of the list, due to low dose herbicides which were used on 50% of the cereal area (Figure 9 and Box 2). 

In 1993/94 potatoes had the highest rate of pesticide use per treated area due to the high application rate of fungicides. However by 1995/96, the total amount of pesticides applied to potatoes had decreased (- 49%), as did the rate per hectare, figure 8 and figure 9. Sugar beet now has the highest rate of herbicide use per treated hectare, although this is also down compared to 1994. The amount of pesticides used on oilseeds also fell significantly, both in terms of total use (- 45%) and use per hectare. The important increase seen in figure 8 for other arable crops (+ 50%) was due to an increase in cropped area, rather than in doses applied.

United Kingdom: increase in weight of pesticides applied to arable crops and in the area of arable crops

In United Kingdom in 1996, the total amount of pesticides 3 applied to arable crops, in terms of tonnes of active ingredients, was 7% more than in 1994 and 0.5% higher than in 1990 (Figure 10). Herbicides and desiccants accounted for 69% of the total, mainly due to the widespread use of sulphuric acid. Fungicides accounted for 18%, growth regulators 9%, insecticides 2%, seed treatments 1% and molluscicides less than 0,5%.

Between 1994 and 1996 the area devoted to growing arable crops increased by 6% and the area of all arable crops (including set-aside) treated with pesticides increased by 18%. Changes in set-aside obligations led to a decrease in set-aside area of 30%, releasing approximately a quarter of a million hectares of land for arable farming. Much of this appears to have been taken up with cereals, particularly wheat and winter barley, for which the area planted increased by 10.5% (316 000 ha), while the weight of pesticides applied to cereals increased by 1 432 tonnes. However, this increase in the weight of active substances applied to cereals (+ 16%) was smaller than the increase in treated area (+ 23%). This can be partly explained by the large increase in the area of cereals treated with pyrethroids, which are applied in relatively low doses, and the fall in the use of organophosphates and carbamates.

Most pesticides are applied to wheat, with winter barley and sugar-beet a long way behind (Figure 11). The increased pesticide use is due not only to an increase in the area treated but also to an increase in application rate per ha: increased by 14% for wheat and 28% for winter barley (Figure 12).

Poisoning of animals in United Kingdom: pesticides implicated in 31 % of incidents investigated

Suspected incidents of pesticide poisoning in United Kingdom are investigated by the ‘Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme’. The Environmental Panel of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides reports the incidents investigated each year. In 1996 a total of 651 incidents were investigated. Pesticides were implicated in 204 of these. This is comparable to the number of incidents in precedent years. The incidents concern mainly companion animals (47% of incidents), vertebrate wildlife (38%), suspected baits 4 (14%), but livestock and beneficial insects are also likely to be affected. The following table 2 shows the type of pesticides implicated in the incidents where pesticide poisoning was confirmed.(Box 3)

Table: Number of incidents involving individual pesticides in 1996 and species and/or bait involved


1 Pesticides include insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, haulm killing, soil desinfectant (only non-fumigantia), growth regulators, molluscicides, disinfectants, and auxiliary substances.
2 The agriculture sectors included in the survey in the Netherlands include: arable crops, vegetables in the open, top-fruit, tree nursery crops, flower bulbs and tubers, vegetables and flowers under glass, and mushrooms.
3 The pesticides surveyed covered insecticides, acaricides, molluscicides, fungicides, herbicides, desiccants, soil sterilants, nematicides, and growth regulators.
4 Each year a number of suspected baits and suspicious samples are submitted for pesticide residue investigation, even though no dead animals have been found nor poisoning known to have occurred.


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