Economic effects of a glyphosate ban on European agriculture

Published in Earth & Environment
Economic effects of a glyphosate ban on European agriculture
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Glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide in Europe. There is a wide range of applications such as weed control in annual and perennial crops, termination of cover crops, termination of temporary grassland and renewing permanent grassland, and crop desiccation. In Europe, glyphosate is currently used each year on 30% of annual crops and 50% of perennial tree cropping systems (such as olive groves, vineyards, and fruit orchards).

 Glyphosate use has potentially negative effects on human health and the environment (e.g. van Bruggen et al. 2018, EFSA 2022). This has triggered a debate to fully ban glyphosate use in Europe (Kudsk & Mathiassen 2020). After several years of discussions, the European Commission is expected to make a strategic decision on the renewal of the approval of glyphosate in 2023. Independently, several European countries recently announced future bans or massive restrictions on the use of glyphosate (e.g. Austria, Germany, France). While decisions on the renewal of the approval of pesticides are mainly guided by potential environmental and human health risks, economic implications are inevitably relevant in any decision to ban a product that is so widely used like glyphosate. However, we currently lack insights on these economic implications for European agriculture at large. 

Figure 1. Glyphosate is currently used each year on 30% of annual crops and 50% of perennial tree cropping systems in Europe  (Photo: Robert Finger)

In an article published in Communications Earth & Environment, we provide an overview and synthesis of the existing evidence on potential farm-level economic impacts of a glyphosate ban in European agriculture. This economic perspective aims to complement, not to substitute, environmental and human health risks assessments. Moreover, understanding the implications of more stringent pesticide policies for farms and farmers is crucial to design better agri-environmental policies. We conducted a review of the literature including both peer reviewed and non-peer reviewed studies, accounting for a wide range of agricultural systems, countries and languages.

 Where glyphosate is currently used, the possible economic impacts of a ban may stem from a combination of three main effects. First, alternative strategies for weed control, and termination of cover crops and grassland may be more expensive, implying for example additional costs for machinery, fuel and labor. Second, the adoption of less effective alternatives for weed control, e.g. against perennial weeds may cause yield losses due to lower efficacy, i.e. a reduced level of crop protection. Third, banning glyphosate may cause fundamental and costly shifts in crop management and farming systems. For example, soil tillage practices such as conservation agriculture or other forms of no- or reduced-tillage are often linked to the use of glyphosate.

In our review, we identified 19 studies that assessed economic implications of a glyphosate ban in European countries. As these studies often cover multiple crops, crop rotations, regions and even multiple countries, our review identified many individual assessments (e.g. crop-country combinations). However, most assessments are only focused on a few countries and cropping systems so that large literature gaps on the potential economic impacts of a glyphosate ban in Europe remain (Figure 2).

Our analysis shows that the range of economic impacts is substantial. Within peer-reviewed studies, for example, the economic implications of a glyphosate ban range from 2-3€/ha (and cropping season) in German silage maize (Böcker et al. 2020) to 12-553€/ha in French vineyards (Jacques et al. 2021). The latter estimated economic impacts represent between 1% and 1-11% of profit margins in the respective cropping systems. 

Figure 2. Distribution of identified studies on the farm-level economic impacts of a glyphosate ban in Europe (considered cropping systems in parentheses). The figure is based on www.freeworldmaps.net.

Our review shows that potential economic losses arising from a glyphosate ban expressed in absolute terms are largest for high-value perennial crops such as fruits and grapevine.  The economic impacts of a glyphosate ban are - in absolute terms (i.e. in €/ha)– lower for arable crops, i.e. are usually below 100 €/ha and year. However, these effects of a glyphosate ban for arable crops are often similarly high in relative terms (i.e. as share of profit margins) as for perennial crops, as total profit margins for many arable crops are often only a few hundred Euros per hectare.

The here identified studies on the implications of a glyphosate ban often focus on the costs for weed control and the yield effects. A key aspect considered in these studies is that a ban of glyphosate would necessitate a substitution with other pest management measures to protect crops. An important substitute for glyphosate, is for example mechanical weed control. Further, non-inversion tillage systems and conservation agriculture practices are currently mainly relying on glyphosate for weed control. A glyphosate ban could thus lead to lower uptake of these practices in Europe. The farm-level economic implications of this effect on the viability of non-inversion tillage systems and conservation agriculture practices, however, are not yet widely quantified.  

Our study shows that where glyphosate is currently used, a ban of glyphosate can have significant economic impacts, at least in the short run. This finding reflects that glyphosate has become an integrated component of many farming systems. Replacing glyphosate will usually require a bundle of measures (e.g. combinations of agronomic and mechanical solutions and a redesign of cropping systems), as single substitutes are often less efficient. Such a transition could be supported by policy through the targeted development of alternative technologies and alternative farming systems as well as strengthening independent advisory services (Möhring et al. 2020). Policy interventions may also help to reduce trade-offs between regulating glyphosate use and other agri-environmental goals, e.g. , to avoid negative environmental effects via reduced uptake of non-inversion tillage systems or conservation agriculture. Targeted measures for farmer support can help to develop and promote the widespread adoption of production systems, which allow to combine no or reduced glyphosate use and conservation agricultural practices.

Overall, our analysis revealed that important knowledge gaps remain, e.g. because most European countries and many highly relevant cropping systems are not represented in the existing studies on economic implications of a glyphosate ban (Figure 2). A good coverage of different cropping systems and countries would be required to provide a full overview of economic effects of glyphosate use. These effects may potentially be highly heterogeneous, especially along the gradient from Northern to Southern Europe, e.g., due a shorter growing season in the North that limits the opportunities for mechanical control of particularly perennial weeds between crops. Moreover, potential trade-offs from a substitution of glyphosate, and mid- to long-term economic effects of a ban, for example on markets, or through effects on the environment, are not addressed in the reviewed studies. To address the identified knowledge gaps, a concerted effort is needed to initiate rigorous studies on economic impacts of a glyphosate ban that systematically covers most European countries and farming systems, and a wide range of uses of glyphosate.

 Finally, note that our study focusses on direct farm-level economic impacts of a glyphosate ban in Europe but neglects very crucial aspects such as implications for, e.g., human health and the environment. Thus, our study complements other assessments covering these aspects (van Bruggen et al. 2018, EFSA 2022), but should not be the sole source for policy decisions on glyphosate, for which more than economic aspects matter.

This article is coauthored by Robert Finger, Niklas Möhring and Per Kudsk.

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