An Earth-Centered Solution: Pesticide-Free Zones in Europe

Photo: Yann Arthus Bertrand

Photo: Yann Arthus Bertrand

By Shanna McCormack

The rise of pesticides

Globally, the pesticide market was valued at a total of $45 billion in 2015, up from $38 billion in 2010.[i] Pesticide use worldwide has grown over the past 20 years to 3.5 billion kg/year (as of 2015).[ii] Pesticide sales in Europe are also the highest of any region.


The average use of pesticides in Europe has not decreased overall in recent years despite discussions concerning the sustainability of agriculture and the introduction of low dose pesticides in the market. Portugal, Italy, and Belgium reduced their pesticide use; however, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain all increased their use of pesticides, with Spain doubling the amount of pesticides used.[iv]

How pesticides impact the natural environment

Pesticides are used in agricultural production to keep crops alive by suppressing weed growth, preventing disease, and controlling plant consumption by insects and other animals. This allows crop producers to sustain high crop yields in otherwise detrimental conditions.[v]

While the pesticides do serve these purposes, they do not impact crops alone. Pesticides that are applied to crops can enter soil and surface water through leaching and runoff. From there, they can enter groundwater and negatively impact terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, which in turn impacts overall habitat function and contributes to a loss of biodiversity. Decreased habitat function and losses in biodiversity lead to a reduction in the benefits provided through ecosystem services. These benefits include pollination by insects, soil formation, and natural filtering processes that provide clean water.[vi]

The effects of pesticides vary by particular pesticide and a number of outside factors. Environmental impacts differ based on pesticide toxicity and dosage, protective measures taken during the pesticide’s application, the absorption properties of the soil, weather conditions, and how long the pesticide can persist in the environment.[vii]


Why you should care about pesticides- Human health impacts

Direct Exposure

Hazards to human health from pesticides can occur directly or indirectly. One significant direct form occurs by occupational exposure. Agricultural workers in open fields, greenhouses, workers in the pesticide industry, and exterminators all face frequent contact with pesticides. The most common adverse effects of direct pesticide exposure include acute headaches, vomiting, stomach-aches, and diarrhea. Long-term low-level exposure to pesticides can also lead to chronic diseases such as cancer, birth defects, and reproductive problems. While a single pesticide can cause adverse health effects, “pesticide cocktails” can be even more detrimental.  

Indirect Exposure

Indirect exposure to pesticides usually occurs when visiting public spaces after pesticide application, when eating foods treated with pesticides, or when drinking water with pesticide residues. Bystanders can also be indirectly exposed to pesticides if a spray drift occurs. This exposure can have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and those who are immunologically compromised. 

Curbing pesticide use

In response to concerns regarding the use of pesticides, some cities and countries in the European Union have created pesticide-free zones to protect human health, animal health, and the environment. Pesticide-free zones can be found in various forms in countries such as Italy, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg[ix]. In 2009, European Union member states approved directive 2009/128/EC on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides, which called for the establishment of buffer zones to safeguard both surface and groundwater used for drinking water and to protect aquatic organisms. The directive says that pesticide use in areas that could cause contamination should be eliminated or reduced as far as possible.[x]

As a result of this directive, many cities have decided to go pesticide free. For example, Germany prohibited pesticide use on non-agricultural land unless an exception is granted, Italy banned glyphosate use in public areas, and France and Luxembourg banned all pesticide use in public areas (France has an emergency exception).[xi]

Economic benefit of going pesticide free

While the prevention of harm to people and the environment is the primary goal, bans on pesticides have also had an economic benefit. For example, the city of Lyon, France has been pesticide free since 2008 in all of its 300 parks and gardens, choosing instead to use natural management techniques. The initiative has saved the city enough money that it has been able to expand its green areas.[xii]

Danish regulations have been some of the strictest in the world regarding pesticide use, and are more restrictive than EU level rules. The Danish government’s focus on pesticide use is largely to keep groundwater for drinking free from pesticides. To achieve this, the government created buffer zones around the borders of rivers, lakes, and between residential and agricultural lands.[xiii] The restrictions also ban pesticide use around environmentally sensitive areas and water bodies.[xiv]

Banning the most lethal pesticides

In a recent controversial decision, the EU reapproved the use of glyphosate. Leading up to the renewal decision, farmers associations, agricultural trade representatives, and pesticide producers such as Monsanto all threatened legal action if the pesticide was not renewed. The approval discussion pitted producers, who claimed glyphosate is “the safest pesticide ever invented”, against citizens concerned about the health impacts of the pesticide (who were supported by evidence that it may cause cancer).

Ultimately, the EU approved the renewal. But not all countries were in favor. Most notably, France was opposed to the renewal and pushed for the pesticide to be phased out by 2020.[xv]

The most recent ban involving pesticides is EU-wide and bans all outdoor use of neonicotinoids, the pesticide linked to a decline in bee populations. Restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids have been in place since 2013. Bayer CropScience and another pesticide company have sued to remove the restrictions. The verdict in the case is due later this month.[xvi]

The Pesticide Action Network (PAN) has brought a number of cases to the European Union Court of Justice to protect people and ecosystems from pesticides. For example, in a 2015 case about the practices of the European Commission regarding the authorization and sale of pesticides, the ombudsman considered that the Commission “may be too lenient in its practices and might not be taking sufficient account of the precautionary principle.” The ombudsman then made several proposals to improve the Commission’s practices so that human health, animal health, and the environment could be effectively protected in the European Union.[xvii]

How Earth Law could help strengthen the drive to reduce pesticides

Rights for nature can help to establish a legal right to be free from toxic pesticides as well as other forms of pollution. Preventing or limiting the use of pesticides that are toxic to the environment benefits all surrounding ecosystems and, in turn, humans as well. Under Earth Law, nature is not treated as property that humans can consume at will; nature’s right to be preserved and restored will have a voice in the legal system.

Earth Law aims to recognize nature’s intrinsic right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles.  Once this is done, decisions are made by balancing the rights of humans with the rights of ecosystems, and the plants and animals within them. When damage occurs to an ecosystem, people have the ability to bring legal action on behalf of the injured party (the damaged ecosystem) and vindicate its rights in court.

Case study: Earth Law to curb pesticide use in Serbia

Serbia and its neighbor Montenegro constitute less than 2% of Europe but contain over half of Europe’s fish species and over two-thirds of European bird and mammal species. This makes the area an important center for biodiversity in Europe.[xviii]

Currently, 57% of Serbian land is dedicated to agricultural production and the overuse of pesticides for agriculture has a harmful impact on ecosystems. The use of carbofuran, one of the most toxic pesticides on the market, is particularly toxic to birds.[xix] White-tailed eagles in the border region between Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary, one of the most important areas for this species, are on the decline. WWF registered only 22 breeding pairs of white-tailed in 2014 in Serbia’s Gornje Podunavlje Special Nature Reserve, and 8 birds were found dead from poisoning by carbofuran later the same year.[xx]

ELC is proud to work with Earth Thrive and International Rivers on our joint campaign to bring rights of nature to Serbia. Together, we aim to recognize nature's rights and evolve current protections of the beautiful, richly biodiverse yet also highly endangered nature in the Balkans.

Together, we have launched two different but related campaigns to bring rights of nature to Serbia:

  1. Establishing the legal rights of ecosystems in the Balkans to be free from toxic pollution from pesticides. By recognizing ecosystems in the Balkans as legal entities possessing rights, we can ensure that they are restored to health as a legal right. This campaign will also include defining and establishing a legal right to native, thriving biodiversity for Balkan ecosystems. Practically speaking, this will mean an end to the vastly excessive use of toxic pesticides in this region.
  2. Establishing legal rights for rivers within the Balkans, including a right to flow – a right that risks being violated through the development of destructive dam projects. According to the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers, which describes the rights to which all rivers are entitled, “…new dam construction shall only occur when necessary to achieve clean water for … compelling purposes, with such dams only built upon securing the full free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous and other impacted communities….”

These campaigns will build from rights of nature victories across the world – including in Ecuador, Bolivia, New Zealand, Colombia, and the United States. It is our sincere desire that by establishing legal rights for nature in Serbia, we can permanently protect nature within its invaluable ecosystems, including from destructive pesticide use.

What you can do about it today