About a fortnight ago in Rome, Pope Francis received a group of Italian activists, who drew his attention to an important initiative concerning the deteriorating situation of biodiversity and of bees in particular. The activists asked for the Pope's blessing for the European Citizen Initiative (ECI) launched by nine NGOs, including Slow Food - which calls for the phasing out of synthetic pesticides and a reduction in their use of at least 50% by 2030. Such an initiative, if signed by a million European citizens, could force European policy makers to take an initiative. Now, the European Commission in Brussels has announced the so-called 'Farm to fork strategy', one of the objectives of which is to...reduce pesticide use by 50%. The ECI could come as a powerful support for this.

Agrochemical companies such as Bayer, Basf and Syngenta hope that this ECI will fail because it directly affects their multi-billion dollar business, and an agrochemical lobby is going on to sabotage the Farm to Fork.

At the moment volunteers and many NGOs across Europe are campaigning hard to get those one million signatures. There is a deadline towards the end of September and it is therefore still very exciting whether the one million will be reached.

The role of citizens

Italian citizens can make a difference. Why? Because surprisingly few Italians (25,000) have signed up to this initiative so far. And because I know that many Italians feel attached to the land of their ancestors and to biodiversity, both of which are necessary for the production of healthy agricultural products and therefore the good ingredients of Italian cuisine... And which are also simply crucial to our survival. Years ago, I once had the honour of speaking at the great Slow Food Conference in Turin and that gathering of so many food producers, activists, scientists from all over the world and especially from Italy, all fighting and working for more sustainable food production, was simply impressive.

But despite the growing culinary and ecological awareness and the great appreciation for sustainable agriculture, the destruction machine of agrochemical agriculture and food production is unfortunately still running at full speed. Although the European Commission, announced its Farm to Fork strategy, there is still the recently approved European agricultural policy, which (also thanks to MEP Paolo di Castro) was supposedly reformed to better reward environmentally friendly production, but which unfortunately will continue to spend billions of euros annually on the destructive practices of industrial, agrochemical agriculture.

The harmful effects of pesticides on the environment and human health should have been reduced long ago with the implementation of the European directive on the sustainable use of pesticides adopted in 2009; And agriculture's dependence on synthetic chemicals should have been significantly reduced by now. This directive was revised in 2019, as an audit by the European Court of Auditors found that its implementation was inadequate in many member states, including Italy.

In March this year, a large group of Italian organisations sent an open letter to Italian policymakers to remind them of Italy's commitments to reduce pesticide use. The national action plan for the sustainable use of plant protection products expired in February 2018 and the new text submitted for public consultation in 2019 has already been overtaken by the objectives of the EU's Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies (which still need agreement).

More than 30 associations and citizens' committees, coordinated in Italy by the WWF, sent the open letter to the three ministers (Patuanelli, Cingolani and Speranza), to the chairmen of the parliamentary committees on agriculture, the environment and health, and to the president of the Conference of the Regions, all of whom are responsible for regulating the use of pesticides, asking them to adopt courageous and far-sighted positions in Europe. “Italy must make up for serious delays in updating the national action plan (NAP) on pesticides, drawing up the national strategic plan for the CAP after 2023 and adopting the national law on organic farming, all of which are indispensable instruments for protecting pollinators, agriculture, the environment and the health of citizens” they wrote.

Biodiversity at risk

Last week, three UN agencies (FAO, UNEP and INDP) published a major emergency report on the agricultural policies of western, rich countries. The report concludes that global agricultural support from rich countries to producers currently amounts to almost $540 billion a year "at a time when many countries' public finances are under pressure, especially in the developing world" and that "more than two-thirds of this support is considered price distorting and largely environmentally damaging". According to the UN institutions, the climate and millennium development goals (SDGs) are not achievable in this way.

Pesticides are a major cause of collapsing biodiversity, degrading soil fertility and depriving small farmers of a reasonable income. Scientists have already spoken of an 'insectageddon' due to the loss of insects. A few years ago, scientists published an extensive, global analysis in the scientific journal Biological Conservation, in which they calculated that the total insect population is declining by 2.5 percent per year. If this trend continues, there will be no insect left within a century. Today, about one third of all insect species are threatened with extinction, and 40 per cent of species are steadily declining.

Agriculture and food production are not sustainable in the long term like this. A transition to environmentally friendly agriculture is inevitable for the climate, soil and for a viable countryside, healthy local food and a financially healthy and vibrant countryside.

Democracy tools

The ECI instrument is intended to actively involve citizens in EU policy. We are making use of this now, in order to be heard. This is another important reason to ensure that this initiative is successful. Unfortunately, it seems that the government in Italy does not appreciate this, because it is throwing up some barriers to participation. People have to fill in their ID card number, while in countries like Belgium or the Netherlands only a date of birth is sufficient. Yet that is no reason to renounce your democratic rights as an Italian citizen. The data are not for the organisation, but only for the government to determine the percentage of valid signatures in a random sample. Afterwards, the data are deleted. So don't be put off and sign while you still can!

That Italians can mobilise en masse was proven by, among others, the successful EU citizens' initiative Stop Vivisection, which was signed by no fewer than 690,000 Italians.

And Pope Francis, did he sign? That is not known. But he did give his blessing to this ECI and that is not so surprising. In 2015 Pope Francis published the encyclical Laudato si'. For the first time, a pope put forward ecology as a theme in such a world letter. Inspired and informed by scientific and political findings, he knows what is at stake when it comes to pollution and climate change, water, loss of biodiversity and how urgent the problems are. Francis is critical of the idea that science and technology will solve everything, as many European politicians claim. The fundamental problem is that we have a wrong vision of our relationship with nature. In spite of the slogans of the agrochemical lobby, imitated by many politicians, it is indeed possible to produce enough healthy food for everyone without waging chemical warfare against the land and nature.

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