Pesticides in the EU: We will not go on like this
“I wonder if this is really a victory?” – the last words of the EU Commissioner for Health Stella Kyriakidesaddressed to the members of the EU Parliament who voted against a law to reduce the use of pesticides in the EU on November 22, hung in the room at the end of the day. The rejection of the EU Commission’s proposal to halve the use of pesticides in agriculture by 2030 and to ban them completely on so-called sensitive areas, which include golf courses and soccer pitches, was welcomed by some political parties and representatives of the agricultural lobby. UEFA for soccer and the EGA with the R&A, the FEGGA and other parts of the golf industry had also spoken out in favor of a reduction in use but against a complete ban.
Business as usual or proactive measures?
Less than a month later, the question arises as to how the golf industry will deal with this result on the so-called SUR (Sustainable Use Regulation) in the future. Although the regulation is off the table for the time being due to the upcoming European elections in June, it also became clear during the parliamentary debate that the topic of plant protection products is an ongoing issue because the effects of the use of plant protection products, also known as pesticides, on human and animal health and on the extinction of species continue to be discussed and investigated. It already became clear during the last discussions in Parliament that the provisions on sports areas are an insignificant side issue for MEPs, whose importance completely pales in comparison to the discussion on agriculture. According to Niels Dokkuma, agronomist and sustainability officer at the European Golf Association (EGA), there is “a subsequent risk of ending up as collateral damage in a major agricultural debate if we don’t address the subject in a pro-active manner.”
Start five-year transformation
For the European Golf Association, proactive in this context means working towards a transition to pesticide-free operation of golf courses. “And in transitions we all understand that time is key. Rather allowing yourself 5 years instead of cold-turkey making the jump in say 2 or 3 years”, Dokkuma states. In terms of the individual golf course, this means every single European golf course should start immediately to initiate the process of reducing pesticides in greenkeeping with the aim of doing away with them completely if it has not already done so.
An assessment that is also shared by numerous experts from the relevant professional and national associations. “Irrespective of further developments, we must continue to work intensively on site-specific care concepts that make it possible to largely dispense with chemical plant protection,” summarizes the German Golf Association, the largest golf association within the EU. “The political disagreement in Brussels is therefore giving golf courses an unexpected breathing space, which they should use to adapt their maintenance management,” says Beate Licht, head of the DGV Integrated Pest Management working group. In France, the fourth-largest federation, the use of synthetic pesticides will be prohibited on all sports surfaces from January 1, 2025 by the so-called Labbé law. “Golf continues its efforts to meet this deadline”, summarizes Maximilien Lambert, responsible for ecological transformation at the Fédération Francaise de Golf.
Change also in tourist hotspots
The recommendations and guidelines of the associations are one thing; the practical work on the pitches is another. How great is the pressure from the average golfer, the hotel industry, tourism associations and guests on operators to always deliver a course in top condition, regardless of whether pesticides are used or not? Andreas Leutgeb, President of the Austrian Greenkeeper Association, sees improvements in many areas. Even in regions such as Tyrol or Carinthia, which experience a large influx of golfers in the summer but also struggle with long winters, the understanding of the challenges of greenkeeping has increased. “Overall, it’s very satisfying that people no longer react immediately with great displeasure when there are minor problems,” he concludes.
Greenkeeping in Austria is increasingly reorienting itself anyway: “The trend is already moving towards doing without. Not only because of health and environmental issues with pesticides but also because it’s simply an expensive thing to do. Many colleagues in greenkeeping are trying to get by with fewer pesticides and fertilizers.”
Lack of data is the biggest problem
As pleasing as these efforts are, the European golf industry is ill-equipped for the discussion with the EU Parliament, where the golf industry is insisting on being able to continue to rely on a few plant protection products in order to be able to react to acute disease or pest infestations, due to its lack of data. “We are an easy target,” says Martin Nilsson, Board Member of the Federation of European Golf Greenkeepers Association (FEGGA), sobering up. Although the golf scene can always point to its efforts to reduce pesticides, it cannot back this up with figures at the moment.
In fact, a survey of various national associations reveals the following picture: of the largest golf associations in Europe, only a few have up-to-date data available. Denmark is the only country obliged to report club data to the association since 2013. The software for this was developed by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The association and the EPA have access to the data. The club’s greenkeeper collects the figures, the reporting is usually done by the club manager, but the legal responsibility for the accuracy of the data lies with the manager or owner of the facility. This also prevents the management from exerting pressure on greenkeeping to use pesticides illegally. Golf courses that do not adhere to the system can be punished with fines, but also with the withdrawal of permission to use pesticides or the complete operating license. Martin Nilsson, himself head greenkeeper at the Royal Copenhagen Golf Club, notes that this system has led to confidence in golf on the part of the authorities and the public. “Build trust with reliable data,” he concludes.
Mandatory reporting in France
A motto to which the French Golf Association is also committed. The greenkeeper of the facility is also legally obliged to enter his consumption data for water and pesticides at least once a month. The association has developed the Platform.Golf app for this purpose. The association guarantees that the data is confidential but has an overview of national and regional data.
As with all environmental issues, the golf scene is also debating whether the voluntary submission of data contributes to the credibility of reporting. The Royal Dutch Golf Association, for example, was obliged to provide the Ministry of the Environment with an anonymous dataset on the use of pesticides from 2015 to 2020. Reporting by the golf courses was voluntary, with between 63 and 81 % taking part each year. According to Niels Dokkuma, who, in addition to his EGA activities, is also responsible for Sustainable Management at the Royal Dutch Golf Association, this has led to an 80 % reduction in pesticides within five years.
England Golf also advises a changeover
While current developments are being discussed within the EGA, England Golf, which as a non-EU member is not directly involved in EU issues, is observing the topic with great interest. ” If the EU ban does go ahead, it will have an impact on us anyway, because of the market economics around supply and demand”, says Owen James, Sustainability Manager of the largest association in Europe. “The UK market will be so small that prices for golf clubs will increase hugely, as supplies dwindle. For this reason, we advocate and encourage that golf clubs look to move away from pesticide use now anyway, so that, should issues arise further down the line they aren’t blindsided, and are already prepared and ready, with healthier turf and environmental conditions.”
All respondents agree that in the next few years, it is more likely that the regulations on the use of plant protection products will be tightened than that the status quo will be maintained. Dokkuma, who has already held numerous talks with EU representatives on behalf of the EGA, also believes that the hopes of some protagonists from the world of sport that soccer pitches and golf courses could be removed from the classification of sensitive areas and assessed in the same way as agriculture are “highly unlikely if we look at the positions of the political stakeholders over the last year.”
Just how different the handling of pesticides and the health risks associated with them are was recently demonstrated by a case from Canada where the state authority Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) apparently refrained from informing operators of sports grounds of the enormous health risks of the herbicide DCPA, which is not approved in the EU, in May 2023. In doing so, the PMRA exposed itself to the accusation of protecting the manufacturers of pesticides at the expense of the athletes.
“Things can’t go on like this”
In their concluding remarks after the debate on November 22, EU Commissioner Stella Kyriakides and Sarah Wiener as rapporteur of the Environment Committee left no doubt that the issue will be dealt with more intensively in the EU in the coming months. “We all know that things can’t go on like this with pesticides,” Wiener said. SUR was stopped on November 22, 2023. However, as the EU debate and final declaration made clear, there will be no more of the same.