BRUSSELS — Franc Bogovič spent 16 years selling pesticides. Now he’s leading the charge in Brussels against an EU master plan to wean farmers off them.
The 60-year-old European lawmaker lives in the Kozjanski Park — a biodiversity hotspot in eastern Slovenia that is protected under EU law — and owns a commercial apple orchard on its fringes.
But Bogovič, who represents the center-right European People’s Party, is also one of the European Parliament’s key lawmakers responsible for amending the highly contentious pesticide reduction bill, which aims to halve the use of toxic agrochemicals by the end of the decade while promoting the uptake of safer, non-chemical alternatives.
Among the 48 lawmakers on the EU’s powerful agriculture committee, Bogovič is no oddity. Eleven of its members — including his EPP colleagues Simone Schmiedtbauer and Jarosław Kalinowski — have declared farming as an outside activity, according to a tally by accountability watchdog Transparency International. These include Frenchman Jérémy Decerle, of the liberal Renew Europe, who breeds cows for meat. Organic farmers Benoît Biteau and Martin Häusling represent the Greens on the committee.
In reality, the number of farmers on the agriculture committee overseeing the EU’s €387 billion farm aid budget is higher. Annie Schreijer-Pierik of the EPP has, for example, handed control of her pig farm in the Netherlands to her son and daughter-in-law. And substitute committee member Jan Huitema, a Dutch MEP for Renew Europe, is a partner in a cattle farm with his father.
The heavy representation of farmers on the committee has put a roadblock in the way of the European Commission, which wants to put greater emphasis on environmental sustainability and the interests of consumers as part of its Farm to Fork policy agenda.
“The committee is just stacked with farmers,” said Nicholas Aiossa of Transparency International. While such conflicts of interest do arise elsewhere, the agriculture committee had been “the most consistent” case of such overrepresentation over the years, he said.
The MEPs on the agriculture committee also personify the rift over the future of farming that has opened up on pesticides, with traditional farmers like Bogovič adamantly opposing the pesticide reduction law while Greens like Sarah Wiener — a broadcaster and restaurateur who owns an interest in a bio-farm — are pushing for more ambitious targets.
Yet even Wiener opposed the Commission’s initial proposal to ban all pesticides in protected areas, while advocating the use of pesticides approved for organic farming.
The pesticide reduction bill goes to a crunch vote in the agriculture committee next Monday, before a vote in the environment committee on October 24. Wiener, who sits on both committees, is the rapporteur, or lead lawmaker, on the file.
The pushback from the agriculture committee isn’t making her job of getting lawmakers to unite behind the measure any easier.
“One problem we often see in the AGRI Committee is that its members only pretend to represent the interests of small farmers,” Wiener told POLITICO. In reality, the focus was on “the needs of the agricultural industry and large landowners” — to the disadvantage of small farmers who run more than three-quarters of farms in the EU.
Bogovič describes himself as an agricultural engineer with firm opinions. “I sold pesticides as an entrepreneur in Slovenia between 1990 and 2006,” he said in an interview. “I know everything that happened in the past 40 years.”
He says the pesticide reduction law he’s fighting could ruin farmers like his wife’s cousin, who would not be able to spray pesticides on his orchards as these are located inside the protected park. Bogovič is luckier — his apple trees grow just outside the park’s boundaries.
“It’s really a disaster for agriculture,” Bogovič said, referring to the original proposal presented by the European Commission in June 2022. “In Slovenia, this means that pesticides can’t be used on a third of vineyards and a third of orchards … The regulation, as it was tabled, is suicide for many farmers.”
Pesticides help farmers kill unwanted insects, plant diseases and weeds, and are a lucrative business worth more than €12 billion annually in the EU. But they can also be highly toxic to human health and biodiversity.
While conservative lawmakers like Bogovič and his EPP group tend to focus on the economic needs of farmers and industry, more progressive MEPs often branch out from the traditional bread and butter of the committee’s work to talk about the interests of the general public and the natural environment.
Amid intense lobbying by pesticide manufacturers and large agricultural groups, the pesticide reduction law has faced pushback from national governments and right-wing MEPs.
In Monday’s vote in the agriculture committee, Bogovič and other conservative lawmakers will seek to strip the bill of EU funding. The Slovenian and his EPP group have not ruled out scrapping the law altogether.
Bogovič no longer works as a pesticide salesman but he is no stranger to the farming industry.
A new analysis of public records by investigative outlet DeSmog reveals that the Slovenian MEP met with industry groups and private companies 48 times between January 2020 and July 2023. During the same period, he met only five times with nongovernmental groups representing public interests.
On the pesticide reduction law alone, Bogovič held 13 meetings with industry during that period, compared with three meetings with only two NGOs.
The pattern reflects a broader trend from DeSmog’s analysis of meetings taken by Bogovič and five other EPP lawmakers who have been at the forefront of efforts to stall agricultural reforms: Norbert Lins, Christine Schneider, Herbert Dorfmann, Anne Sander and Alexander Bernhuber. The analysis includes disclosures of meetings filed by the MEPs before September 25 of this year.
The six lawmakers held over 400 meetings with industry groups, including pesticide manufacturers, food companies and farm lobbies, according to DeSmog’s findings. They met industry-linked groups eight times as often as NGOs.
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The EPP, led by Bavarian politician Manfred Weber, has fought a rearguard action against the Commission’s green agenda, narrowly failing in July in its attempt to block a law to restore countryside areas to their natural state. Weber wants to position the EPP as a “farmers’ party” as campaigning ramps up for election to the European Parliament next June.
Still, the Slovenian lawmaker denies taking orders from industry groups: “I’m a farmer and … I’m an agricultural engineer and I have my own opinion. I really don’t need their opinion on this. I have my own clear view of what is possible and what is not possible in agriculture.”
But for experts on lobbying in Brussels — where the farmers’ interest group Copa-Cogeca and pesticide industry association CropLife exert considerable influence — that argument doesn’t stand up.
“If you’ve already determined your position, why would you be meeting interest representatives on that file?” asked Aiossa of Transparency International.
Echoing DeSmog’s findings, Aiossa said that policymakers in Brussels do tend to meet more often with industry representatives rather than with civil society. And while there are no rules forbidding this, he believes that lawmakers should seek out diverse opinions in order to make well-informed decisions.
Bogovič laughed off the idea that there was a conflict of interest between his work as a farmer and his efforts as a legislator to weaken the EU’s pesticide rules. He said he rarely meets with NGOs because they don’t approach him. “I never avoid discussions with people who have different opinions — I like that,” he said.
Natalija Svrtan, a campaigner for PAN Europe, one of the two NGOs that met with Bogovič to discuss the pesticide reduction law, said the exchange was cordial, even if they disagreed on pretty much everything.
“He doesn’t recognize the link between pesticide use and its impact on human health,” she said.
Historically, issues surrounding food production and consumption have been viewed through the lens of agriculture, giving the committee a dominant voice in many policy talks in Brussels.
In recent years, however, and especially with the introduction of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy, there’s been a greater emphasis on not only how food is grown, but also what that food is, how it’s consumed, and its impact on the environment. As a result, the agriculture committee has been overshadowed by the larger environment committee, which also covers health and food safety issues, and has gained control over many files that were previously overseen by agriculture MEPs.
The upcoming vote in the agriculture committee was originally scheduled for July, but was postponed at the last minute at Bogovič’s request. Environmental NGOs and green lawmakers criticized the delay as an attempt to derail the pesticide law.
The delay was just one example of an intervention by a farmer-lawmaker with a personal stake in the policy issue in hand. During a debate on penalizing industrial emissions last year, Green MEPs Häusling and Biteau, both livestock farmers, laughed off the Commission’s proposal to include more animal farms. In another such case, Jan Huitema — the Dutch cattle farmer — advocated relaxing EU rules around using cow manure as fertilizer, despite the nitrate pollution it can cause.
The day before Bogovič made the request, he met with the pesticide lobby group CropLife Europe, the records show. He denied, however, that the meeting and his request to defer the vote were connected.
“They asked for a meeting and I accepted the meeting,” said Bogovič. He added that he had called for the vote to be postponed because he needed more time to assess the results of a study he had commissioned from the Agricultural Institute of Slovenia on the impact of the pesticide reduction law on farming in his country.
CropLife Europe said it sought meetings with lawmakers relevant to its industry, regardless of their political affiliation. “Mr. Bogovic is a key MEP to discuss the SUR,” the group said in a statement to POLITICO, using the acronym for the pesticide reduction law. “We continue to discuss the proposal with all stakeholders.”
In March, the group complained that it had been unable to arrange a meeting with Wiener, the Parliament’s lead negotiator on the pesticide reduction bill, months after she took up the role. Her records show she has met with its representatives at least once since then.
At the end of the day, Wiener hopes that lawmakers will unite behind a strong position on the pesticides bill.
“I am optimistic that we will have a parliamentary position by the end of November and hope that it will be ambitious,” Wiener said. It was too early to draw conclusions, she added, on how negotiations on the final legislation between the Parliament and EU member countries would turn out.