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Should sovereign countries outside the EU follow the pesticide policies of the EU?qrcode

Jun. 9, 2023

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Jun. 9, 2023
Shunmugam Ganesan

Shunmugam Ganesan

Advisor (Trade Related International Agreements)

Centre for Environment and Agriculture (CENTEGRO)

Agricultural development is one of the most powerful tools to end extreme poverty, boost shared prosperity, and feed a projected 9.7 billion people by 2050. Growth in the agriculture sector is two to four times more effective in raising incomes among the poorest compared to other sectors″.

- ″Agriculture and Food″, The World Bank, 2023

The European Union (EU) is a unique political and economic partnership comprising 27 countries in Europe. The EU maintains a ″single market″ governed by the European Commission (EC).

The share of EU in the global agricultural production is less than 7%. Yet strange as it may sound, the EU expects even pushing other countries, especially the developing countries to follow their pesticide and food policies. This will have harmful consequences for the countries outside the EU. There are strong reasons for this.

The relationship between population and food demand:

According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, population growth is an important driver of increased food demand.

In the year 1960, the present EU 27 countries had a share of 12% in the world population. By 2021, their share had dropped half to 6%. The rest of the world is now the home to 94% of the global population.

The median age of the EU population is 44 years as against 30 years, globally. The EU is now saddled with not only a shrinking population, but also an aging population.

The EU population registered a decrease of 172000 in the year 2021.  Over a fifth of the EU inhabitants are aged 65 or more. Consequently, the EU is not under pressure to produce more food in view of shrinking and aging population.

With a low share in the global population and agricultural production, the EU cannot, and in fact, should not thrust their food production and pesticide policies on other countries. Such attempts must be considered as assertion of extraterritorial jurisdiction beyond the realm of WTO- SPS and TBT Agreements. When imposed unilaterally, they must be held to be inconsistent with the WTO rules.

With increasing population and decreasing agricultural land, agricultural sector in the rest of the world is challenged to achieve more with less. Higher (and younger) population is an important driver for increased food demand in the developing countries. Under the circumstances, there can be no compromise on regulatory sovereignty in the field of agriculture.

In its 2022 report ″Revitalizing African Agriculture: Time for Bold Action″, the UNCTAD made following observations:

-Nearly 60% of the African continent’s population experience food insecurity.
-Most African countries are net food importers.
-At least 82% of Africa’s basic food imports come from outside the continent.
-There is a need to modernize countries with strategies to generate new skills and technologies to enhance the productivity.

Africa is the second most populous continent after Asia now. Africa’s population is double than that of the Europe.  It is estimated that Africa accounts for only 4% of the global pesticides use. Optimum use agrochemicals can make a lot of difference to improving the crop productivity and food security in Africa. The countries in Africa can ill afford to follow the pesticide policies of the EU.

Many crops grown globally are not grown in the EU:

Here is a sample list of food crops.

Sr. no


World Production

EU Production






Not grown in EU





Hardly grown in EU





Hardly grown in EU


Mango and Guava



Not grown in EU





Not grown in EU





Not grown in EU





Not grown in EU





Not grown in EU





Not grown in EU





Hardly grown in EU


Chilies (Dry)



Not grown in EU


Tea leaf



Not grown in EU





Not grown in EU


Cashew nut (Shelled)



Not grown in EU


Black pepper



Not grown in EU

Source: FAOSTAT (Accessed on 23rd May 2023)

Value: Lakh Tons

Year: 2021

The FAO estimates that annually between 20 to 40 percent of global crop production are lost to pests. Each year, plant diseases cost the global economy around $220 billion, and invasive insects around $70 billion.  Pesticides play a major role in reducing the crop yield losses from the pests and diseases.

The climate, crops, pests, and diseases vary widely among the countries. The global agriculture and agricultural practices are highly heterogenous.

The pesticides appropriate for the EU agriculture may not be appropriate for the agriculture outside the EU.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) advises individual countries to go by their own requirement.

[Pesticides] Legislation must be designed to be able to deal effectively with specific problems applicable in the country…. good pesticide legislation must take account of the economic and social situation of the country as well as the crops grown, pest problems, dietary patterns, toxicity of the required pesticides, level of literacy, climatic and environmental considerations. Developing countries should design procedures suited to their own specific needs and not necessarily adopt all the elements of a regulatory scheme as may be in operation in another country, particularly a developed one....

- FAO Guidelines for Legislation on the Control of Pesticides 1989

This is also reiterated in the Rio Declaration.

States shall enact effective environmental legislation. Environmental standards, management objectives and priorities should reflect the environmental and developmental context to which they apply. Standards applied by some countries may be inappropriate and of unwarranted economic and social cost to other countries, in particular developing countries″.

- Principle 11 of UN Rio Declaration 1992

Article XX GATT could not be ″interpreted″ to permit contracting parties to take trade measures so as to force other contracting parties to change their policies within their jurisdiction

- WTO Panel in Tuna-Dolphin dispute in 1994

The questionable pesticide MRL policy of the EU
The Maximum residue Level (MRL) is the highest level of pesticide residue that is legally tolerated in an agricultural commodity when traded. The agricultural commodity may be food, grains, oil seeds, fruits and vegetables, milk, meat, etc.

The MRLs are normally set well below the levels which would pose consumer safety concern. The MRL is not a safety limit. It merely shows whether good agricultural practices (GAP) have been followed in the use of the relevant pesticide.
Since the pesticide MRLs can have direct or indirect effect on the international trade, they are governed by the WTO.
The EU maintains uniform tolerance/MRL of 0.01 ppm for all pesticides that are not authorized for use in the EU countries. This ″one size fits all″ approach is  completely inconsistent with the requirements given in the WTO SPS Agreement.
The EU import tolerance of ≤0.01 ppm MRL is maintained without risk assessment u/s 5.1 of the SPS Agreement, without sufficient scientific evidence and applied in a manner which would constitute a disguised restriction on international trade.

This questionable policy of the EU maintaining uniform import tolerance of ≤0.01 ppm, sometimes forces small countries to ban pesticides not authorized in the EU. This is unnecessary and inappropriate policy response. Instead, the countries affected must challenge the EU before the WTO availing the dispute settlement mechanism. The EU must abide by their GATT/WTO obligations and can’t continue with GATT/WTO inconsistent pesticide MRLs.

Pesticides use in the EU is on the increase:

The EU introduced Directive 2009/128/EC in October 2009 which established a framework to achieve sustainable use of pesticides and promote non-chemical alternatives to pesticides. Empirical evidence however shows that this is a grand failure. According to the data from the  European Commission, the pesticide consumption in EU increased 34% from 2,60,665 tons in 2012 to 3,49,993 tons in 2021. Remember, the EU is also the largest exporter of pesticides in the world. It accounts for nearly 50% of overall pesticide export in the world.

Conclusion: The sovereign states have the inherent power, rights and responsibilities  to set their own policies . They need not toe the pesticide and food production policies of the EU. As advised by the FAO,  they require to be guided by their own needs considering the crops grown, pests & diseases prevalent and their socio-economic development.


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