French scientists: 30 per cent pesticide reduction possible without affecting yields
Friday 02 March 2012
France is currently leading attempts in Europe to scale-back agricultural chemical use, attempting to halve the amount of chemical inputs used in the country by 2018. However, French farmers have reacted strongly to the targets, which they claim will affect their production.
The government has recently reintroduced several forms of green manuring and organic inputs for use on commercial operations in a bid to appease its farmers. However, although returns for France’s farmers have increased and the government has received praise for showing commitment to the long-term viability of its agriculture industry, many farmers have become jaded by new environmental regulations.
France is currently being taken to court by the European Commission over its failure to designate adequate Nitrate Vulnerable Zones under a 1991 law. This has resulted in documented examples of water pollution as a result of chemical use, the Commission has claimed. France is currently Europe’s largest consumer of pesticides, and ranks third in the world.
Reduction in pesticides
France’s agriculture department, INRA, last week stated, “The damage caused to the environment and human health by pesticides is a subject of growing concern. For this reason, during the Environment Round Table [Grenelle de l'Environnement], France fixed an objective to significantly reduce the use of these agents.”
To support the targets, scientists at two of INRA’s research units have demonstrated, using modelling techniques, that the country can achieve a 30 per cent reduction in pesticide use on arable crops without impacting on either yields or farm income.
The scientists, who were looking at whether France’s pledge to radically reduce its pesticide use is economically and agronomically feasible, looked at expert opinions and past experimental results to design a series of scenarios for cultivation practices that would more or less reduce the quantity of pesticides consumed.
Their five-level classification examined a range of methods from intensive agriculture (using the most pesticides) to organic farming which proscribes their application. Between these two extremes were three intermediate levels, the researchers described as sustainable farming (which seeks to reduce input use), low-pesticide farming (which combines chemical and non-chemical methods for crop protection) and integrated farming, which notably implements crop rotations that can reduce the risk of biological attack.
Based on their modelling, looking at the whole of the country, the researchers were able to show that by developing low-input agriculture, a 30 per cent reduction in pesticide use could be achieved without reducing productivity or the margins received by farmers. However, a 50 per cent reduction in pesticide use, as demanded by the French government, caused only a 5 to 10 per cent reduction in yield at a national level.
Although the drastic reduction in pesticide use was shown to affect yields, such chemical inputs are amongst the most expensive raw materials, the rise of which has sparked concern across the European Union, reducing their use may save farmers money. The European Parliament recently commissioned a report into the rise in prices of agricultural inputs after concerns over the effect on farmers’ margins. The INRA researchers concluded that, in order to attain France’s goal of reducing chemical application, whilst maintaining food production, “A significant increase in the share of organic and integrated farming methods would be necessary.”
As a result of their study, the scientists suggested several measures for the French government to ease the country’s transition to lower input farming. They suggested a system of grants and the taxation of pesticides which, if implemented in association with better delivery of advice and training, could convince farmers to reduce their use of these chemical inputs. There have been calls in Britain, since last year’s National Ecosystem Assessment, for environmental impacts to be factored into policy and costs across a broad range of sectors.
In Europe, there have been increasing demands to increase research into more sustainable methods of growing. New Economics Foundation policy director Andrew Simms wrote this week of the pressures facing the world and the pressing need for more research into agroecological measures. He stated, “The technologies you choose matter, each carries with it a different DNA for the economy and society that surrounds it. The ones you pick can lock in a way of being for decades. We need to choose technologies for which low carbon and lots of jobs are part of that DNA. Step forward both multiscale renewable energy technologies and agro-ecological farming. As Jared Diamond put it in his book Collapse, societies choose to fail or survive. We are more aware now of the likely consequences of our choices than any society in history. Wouldn't it be embarrassing if we continued to make the wrong ones?”
An INRA spokesperson elaborated on France’s desire to move past pesticide use, “Although their effects are diffuse and difficult to quantify, pesticides contaminate water and air and can cause illness, particularly among the farmers who apply them.” The spokesperson said the study “Has shown that a major reduction in the use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides is a wholly realistic goal from an economic point of view.”
Although reducing dependence on finite petrochemicals, which are having adverse effects on the environments on which we all rely, is highly commendable, the INRA researchers’ findings demonstrate that there is a pressing need for more research into truly agroecological production methods.