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Von der Leyen withdraws contentious pesticide law amid right-wing backlash and farmer protests

The so-called Sustainable Use Regulation (SUR) was first tabled in June 2022 with the ambitious goal of slashing by half the use of pesticides by 2030. It also envisioned the total prohibition of these products in sensitive areas, such as urban green spaces and Natura 2000 sites, and promoted the uptake of low-risk alternatives.

Chemical pesticides employed to maintain crop yields are considered a major source of pollution and have been linked to biodiversity loss, poor-quality water, degraded soils, pest resistance and chronic illnesses.

SUR proved divisive from its inception and became the object of fierce lobbying from the agricultural sector. Last year, it was rejected by the European Parliament with 299 votes in favour, 207 against and 121 abstentions, and is currently stuck in political negotiations among member states, signalling a very low appetite to push it over the finish line.

"The Commission proposed SUR, with the worthy aim to reduce the risks of chemical plant protection products," von der Leyen said on Tuesday, speaking before the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

"But the SUR proposal has become a symbol of polarisation. It has been rejected by the European Parliament. There is no progress anymore in the Council either. That is why I will propose to the College to withdraw this proposal."

Von der Leyen's decision comes amid a growing right-wing backlash against the European Green Deal and widespread protests of furious farmers, who, among other grievances, complained about the burden created by environmental regulation.

The contestation movement reached Brussels last week during a high-stakes summit of EU leaders, creating scenes of chaos and destruction. Von der Leyen, together with the prime ministers of Belgium and the Netherlands, attended an improvised meeting with representatives from the agricultural sector right after the summit ended.

During her speech on Tuesday morning, the Commission chief spoke at length about farmers, saying they "deserve to be listened to" as they face the ravages of climate change, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis.

But she insisted the sector, which accounts for over 10% of the bloc's greenhouse gas emissions and is heavily subsidised through the EU budget, needs to transition towards a "more sustainable model of production."

"Only if our farmers can live off the land will they invest in the future. And only if we achieve our climate and environmental goals together, will farmers be able to continue to make a living," the Commission president said.

"Our farmers are well aware of this. We should place more trust in them."

The withdrawal of the proposed law is not immediate and still has to be ratified by the College of Commissioners, a process expected to be finalised in the coming weeks.

Despite the news, von der Leyen stressed the issue of regulating pesticides, whose carbon footprint stems from their manufacture, transport and application, would remain on the agenda and could be subject to a "new proposal much more mature."

However, due to the tight schedule imposed by the upcoming elections to the European Parliament, the fresh draft will be the task of the next Commission.

"Of course, the topic stays and to move forward, more dialogue and a different approach is needed", von der Leyen told MEPs.

The legislative death of the Sustainable Use Regulation closes the book on Farm 2 Fork, a multi-part strategy unveiled in May 2020 that set the goal of making Europe's food systems healthier and more sustainable.

Under pressure from conservatives and lobbyists, the strategy was gradually watered down and stripped to the bare minimum. Last year, the Commission decided to forego the Sustainable Food System Law, which was supposed to form the backbone of the bloc's flagship food policy. Instead, the executive opted to launch a strategic dialogue on agriculture in a bid to decrease a growing polarisation in the sector.

Other agriculture-related pieces of legislation that were in the pipeline were ultimately not delivered by von der Leyen's team, such as new rules on the welfare of farmed animals and an EU-wide nutritional food labelling, both perceived as highly divisive.

COPA-COGECA, the leading farmers lobby in Brussels, warmly celebrated the demise of the pesticide law, saying "This top-down proposal stemming from the 'Farm 2 Fork' logic was poorly designed, poorly evaluated, poorly financed, and offered little alternatives to farmers," and called for "realistic" solutions.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who had previously asked for a "pause" in environmental regulation, also welcomed the withdrawal. It is "crucial we keep our farmers on board to a more sustainable future of farming, as part of our determination to get the Green Deal done," De Croo said on social media.

Environmental organisations criticised the decision and warned the hazardous effects caused by pesticides had to be addressed through legally-binding reduction targets.

"Translation = farmers will keep on being poisoned & nature degraded, while the pesticide industry reaps massive profits," said Friends of the Earth. "We cannot afford to leave the pesticide issue unresolved. We need real solutions now to support farmers in transitioning away from toxic chemicals."

This piece has been updated with more information about the announcement.