The EU is tightening up on pesticide use. So how do we feed the world?

The European Union is slowly but inexorably moving to toughen up on pesticide use.

Back in 2006, answering public, worker and environmental health concerns about these agrochemicals, the Commission initiated a package of measures to restrict use. Last week, another step was taken. That brought protests from big farm industries and agrochemical manufacturers. Lurid prophesies of horticultural collapse emerged. Not quite in the 'Brussels bans bent bananas' vein, but not far off. Behind it lies a complex story. One analysis back in January suggested 60% of active ingredients could be banned.

Pesticides have played a big part in the post Second World War intensive-farming revolution, promising solutions to waste and productivity. But from the 1960s, doubts crept in. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring was published in 1962. It was demonised, then gradually accepted to have raised an important question: if we humans unleash blitzkrieg on complex ecological interactions, what unforeseen consequences result? Pesticides are a blunt instrument, critics argue, having knock-on effects on insects, birds and bees. This is not the best way to coax production from the thin layer of biomass on which we humans depend.

The need to raise productivity will not go away. Last week, the latest FAO Global Outlook reminded the world not to think the food crisis was over just because oil and main commodity prices have declined in the past six months.

World cereal harvests have increased in 2008 due to increased plantings based on anticipated high prices. Good news. But prices have dropped 50% since their peak and governments that promised investment in agriculture are now pouring money into propping up bankers. Ahead lie population growth, land, water and energy squeezes.

One option is to intensify even more, but this threatens to further degrade an already fragile ecosystem. Another is to focus on investing more in small as well as large farmers - not fewer farmers on less land, but more farming, more sustainably, everywhere. Most recent productivity gains have been in developed countries, but these are levelling off. It's the developing ones where needs are most acute.

These debates appear far removed from the cut-throat competition of UK food retailing, but they are coming closer. Will the food system embrace sustainability or resist ?n

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University.