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Can Pesticides be Banned for good? The Case of Conegliano, Italy

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “pesticide” is defined as:

  • Any substance or mixture intended to prevent, destroy, repel or mitigate any pest.

  • Any substance or mixture of substances intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant.

  • Any nitrogen stabiliser.

Pesticides are unfortunately one of the inevitable components of modern agriculture and have been used extensively since the 1940s. As a result, pesticides are seen to have a prevalence of 95% among agricultural control methods.

What are the effects and harms of pesticides?

Pesticides, widely used in spray form today, adhere to the surfaces of vegetables and fruits because of adsorption. Therefore, adequate purification cannot be achieved in these foods, sometimes consumed raw. In such cases, exposure occurs through the digestive system.

Pesticides enter our bloodstream and reach our vital organs and systems, sometimes by accidental inhalation or absorption through the skin due to contact. After such, some adverse effects can be seen in the short-term or long-term.

When we talk about the short-term effects of pesticide exposure, the first things that come to mind are acute poisoning and allergic reactions. Especially those dealing with agricultural work are at great risk. Many pesticide poisoning cases occur as a result of careless spraying. Likewise, allergic reactions to pesticides can be life-threatening. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include sudden skin lesions and breathing difficulties.

Genetic damage and related cancers occur due to long-term effects, especially for chronically exposed people. Moreover, deterioration occurs in the liver, kidneys and muscle systems. In addition to these effects, anomalies are observed in the fetus exposed to these substances in the womb. Sometimes pregnancy can end in miscarriage.

Pesticides also affect the environment. The usage of pesticides causes pollution in the soil, air and water. Another problem that has gained a lot of importance in recent years is the loss of biodiversity caused by pesticides. Pesticide usage adversely affects biodiversity and threatens the lives of many species, especially insects and birds.

So, what can be done? The Case of Conegliano, Italy

In the municipalities of the member states of the European Union, efforts to protect citizens and their environments against the ‘’toxic’’, that is, the ‘’poisonous’’ characteristics of pesticides, are increasing. Furthermore, considering this effort, it can be said that the transition to food systems that are not exposed to agrochemicals is significantly slower due to the impact of agribusiness. That’s why people from many parts of Europe come together and ask politicians to take action to achieve the level of protection against pesticides that have not yet been achieved ultimately, both nationally and across Europe.

In 2018, Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Italia held an advisory referendum in Conegliano demanding a ban on all synthetic pesticides. The petition, written in October of the same year, containing the demands of local people against pesticides, was submitted to the Conegliano City Council to discuss the possibility of stopping the usage of pesticides in the municipality. However, traditional Prosecco wine producers strongly opposed these efforts to ‘’purify’’ pesticide usage (The city of Conegliano is located in the Prosecco wine-producing region). In an application to the Italian Ministry of Interior, the referendum’s validity was challenged, and the issue was brought to court. Later, due to a second extraordinary appeal addressed to the President, the President referred the case to the Italian Supreme Court.

In 2021, the Italian Supreme Court decided that the ‘’Conegliano Referendum’’ was legal and ended the case. This decision is a massive victory for the fight against harmful pesticides and citizens' access to democratic decision-making. Correspondingly, as a result of this decision, citizens have been given more opportunities to request protection against pesticides from local authorities.

Local activist Gianluigi Salvador underlines that the pollution caused by industrial agriculture, especially in vineyards, is quite large and states that it threatens both the health of local people and ecosystems. Salvador also thinks that groups in power will use any means to block citizens’ demands against pesticides for protection from agrochemicals.

Disappointingly, the applications against the decision concerning the engagement with the local people for not using pesticides were made by the three leading Italian Farmers' Unions, together with the two largest Prosecco wine producers of this region. The region has been registered on UNESCO's World Heritage List since 2019. PAN Europe had fought against this UNESCO classification as it was wrong to support an area with large amounts of agrochemical releases into the environment. Unfortunately, the local government has so far turned a blind eye to these ‘’chemical’’ production methods used in the region. However, it should be noted that there are many non-chemical alternatives to wine production.

Henriette Christensen, the senior policy adviser to PAN Europe, states that PAN Europe has been monitoring those exposed to pesticides in the region where Prosecco wines are produced for years.

Martin Dermine, PAN Europe policy officer, adds to Christensen's statements that citizens and brave politicians are trying to protect people's health and the environment against pesticides in many European cities. Still, they regularly face opposition from higher judicial authorities. Explaining that they are aware of the ongoing revision of PAN Europe's directive on the ‘’Sustainable Use of Pesticides’’ prepared by the European Commission, Dermine believes that the Directive must have more explicit rules and allow local authorities to create pesticide-free zones.

Koen Hertoge, a member of the Board of Directors of PAN Europe, considers that this court decision, taken as a result of the referendum, inspired other initiatives in Italy. Stating that they are confident that the people of Conegliano will vote for a sustainable future, Hertoge adds that it is a great pleasure to see that the Italian legal system works fairly and that citizens are allowed to fight for their health, environment and cultural heritage.

Closing thoughts

Needless to say, it is a significant detail that it is recorded that local authorities in Italy are trying to ban pesticides on their soil after delivering substantial public support. Moreover, apart from the attempts of wine producers and influential authorities, Italian jurisprudence and high courts favour initiatives against pesticides. Undoubtedly, pesticides have devastating effects not only on human health but also on mother nature. For this reason, nature-friendly and sustainable alternatives should be preferred locally and by taking national and international measures.


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