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Pesticide Overuse Locked into European Agriculture, Says Paper on Pollution

The pollution of European water bodies by hazardous pesticides is not effectively limited by state regulation, according to an article published in 'Environmental Science & Policy' journal in February 2022. Land use patterns, EU agricultural policy, regulatory apathy and regulatory capture, consumer norms and the exclusion of civil society all contribute to a dependency on agricultural chemical use, the article reports. Transformation towards a sustainable chemical policy is needed for European agriculture.

This paper by Frank Hüesker, titled 'Why does pesticide pollution in water still exist?,' reports that excessive pesticide use is leading to severe water quality problems in Europe, with aquatic ecosystems negatively affected by the hazardous effects of past and present chemical pollution. Intensive agricultural production, particularly pesticide runoff from food production, leads to reduced aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity. 

Like carbon "lock-ins," excessive pesticide use can be attributed to several types of "pesticide lock-ins." Lock-ins are path-dependent processes where “initial conditions, increasing economic returns to scale, and social and individual dynamics act to inhibit innovation and competitiveness” of alternatives to existing technologies. Overcoming locked-in excessive pesticide use will require “tremendous resources, time, or extraordinary windows of opportunity.”

Among the types of lock-ins, the article describes infrastructural and technological lock-ins, in which infrastructural longevity locks societies into specific technological pathways, and technological and economic forces lead to inertia and perpetuating excessive pesticide use. Two types of infrastructural and technological lock-ins are identified, related to: the effects of land use in Europe historically prioritizing (conventional) agricultural production together with EU-level agricultural policy entrenching those patterns; and a regulatory infrastructure built around authorization of single chemical substances.

Institutional lock-ins describe how these infrastructural and technological lock-ins can be reinforced and are characterized by actors exercising power within institutional settings that reinforce and stabilize a system of excessive pesticide use. These include: regulatory capture, and the successful lobbying of state actors by industry for specific policies and measures, and the exploitation of regulatory loopholes that favor agrochemical interests; and regulatory ignorance or denial and apathetic behavior of state representatives about the systemic effects of pesticide use, and the lack of political will to enforce existing regulations by different actors.

Behavioral lock-ins show how cultural norms and social patterns are leading to individual decisions that perpetuate excessive pesticide use, with respect to: dominant social patterns strongly favoring food security, that is consumer interest in valuing cheap, secure, and aesthetic food; and clashing cultural norms in a polarized political discourse that leave ecological interests and civil society excluded and without strong representation.

The article advocates for applying the lock-in concept to other fields, and recommends: focusing more on ways to overcome lock-ins; drawing more on theories of sustainability transitions to identify windows of opportunity for social and institutional change; and forging alternative development pathways for agricultural production. [Publication: Why does pesticide pollution in water still exist?