More than nine out of 10 (91%) consumers think food should remain affordable, but only a shade over half (54%) think that farmers should be able to use pesticides to keep prices down.
The findings, from a poll of 5,631 people in Germany, Spain, Poland and the UK, are being used by the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) to defend the role of agri-chemicals as it launches a campaign to address what it calls “negative perceptions”.
That’s putting it mildly. The spotlight has recently been fixed on the world’s most widely used herbicide, glyphosate – a chemical the International Agency for Research on Cancer has tagged as “probably carcinogenic”, but which the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has concluded poses no cancer risk to humans.
Traces have been found in bread and beer, as well as 99.6% of Germans. Producers like Monsanto claim it is perfectly safe, but consumers are far from convinced.
More than 1.4m people have signed a petition to ban glyphosate. A separate poll, published earlier in April, showed that 64% of European consumers think it should be banned, with just 9% supporting its use. The ECPA said at the time that it recognises public concern, but there are thousand of pages of analysis supporting continued use of the chemical.
Speaking at an event on the future of farming in Brussels today, ECPA spokesman Graeme Taylor suggested shoppers can’t have it both ways. “To continue to be able to produce sufficient quantities of quality crops requires sustainable use of pesticides,” he argued. “If farmers cannot protect their crops, cost will inevitably increase.”
The European Commission is currently weighing up whether to certify glyphosate for another 15 years. MEPs recently gave it the green light, but only for seven years, whilst the Guardian newspaper in the UK last week reported that the Commission is planning to relicense it for 10 years, instead of 15. However, it could be banned if a study by the European Chemicals Agency next year concludes that it is hazardous, the paper noted.
Farming groups have been pushing hard for the chemical to be recertified, citing significant crop losses if they are stripped of a crucial weapon to tackle weeds. In the UK, winter wheat and winter barley production would fall 12%, said the country’s farmers’ union.
The ECPA’s poll showed consumers’ poor understanding on a range of issues linked to food security and protection, including:
- 50% underestimate the extent to which global crop yields are lost due to plant pests and diseases each year
- 31% think farmers’ inability to protect their crops against diseases and crop infestation is a factor directly linked to the cost of the world’s food supply; climate change is seen as a much bigger issue (50%).
Most people are also way off when it comes to estimating the amount by which food production must increase by 2050 – only 4% “correctly” said the figure is 60%.
That isn’t surprising, according to the Soil Association, given that the forecasts are continuously being revised downwards. The 60% figure comes from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, but Peter Melchett, from UK organic body the Soil Association said not so long ago people were talking about having to double production levels by 2050.
“It's interesting that even those that are most bullish about the amount of extra food we will need by 2050 are gradually reducing their estimates,” he explained.