A study of 946 farms in France has shown that pesticide use can be significantly reduced without lowering yields or profitability, although implementing new farming practices to reduce usage would not be “necessarily easy” with farmers needing guidance to operate in a new way.
Carried out by researchers at INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, in partnership with the commercial company Agrosolutions, the study found that 77% of farms surveyed could cut their pesticide use without any negative effects on profitability while 94% could cut pesticides without losing yield.
Furthermore, for more than half of the farms tested, pesticide use could be cut by 42% without creating any loss of performance.
If all French farmers could reduce pesticide use this much, the country would be able to cut its national use of pesticides by 30%, according to the study.
Pesticide use hit the headlines in 2014 when it was reported that 7% of the French population had been supplied, at least once, with drinking water that was over the maximum authorized pesticide concentration. As a result, the country is now committed to a national action plan with the target of achieving a 50% decrease in pesticide use. The original target was for 2018, but following recent evidence that pesticide use has actually increased over the last few years, the target date was ‘postponed’ to 2025.
While such headline figures are obviously appealing, the study team warned that the adoption of low-pesticide management strategies might be challenging for farmers, involving a complexity of farming management and decision-making and a series of technical hurdles.
“Transition towards low-pesticide farming strategies might be hampered by the uncertainty behind any deep change,” stated the report, adding that risk aversion might also be a hindering factor as pesticide use reduction would not generally lead to an actual increase in farm proﬁtability.
Despite such notes of caution, however, the study team’s highlighting of the extent to which pesticides could be removed from French agriculture, addresses an issue which is a key current concern across the European Union.
“Pesticide use in agriculture is increasingly reported to generate environmental disruptions and health hazards, particularly for people directly exposed,” stated the report, pointing out that France is the sixth biggest European consumer of pesticides per unit of agricultural area.
The study’s authors also addressed the remaining 23% of farms, which are in “situations of conﬂict between pesticide reduction and productivity and/or proﬁtability”.
“These conﬂicting situations are with industrial crops, characterized by both high pesticide use and high added value,” they said. “In such a context, the proportion of industrial crops inﬂuences the relationship between pesticide use and proﬁtability, so farmers reducing the frequency of these crops will hardly meet the objective of reducing their reliance on pesticide while maintaining their proﬁtability. This ﬁnding emphasizes the need for further technical innovation for these crops to reduce their reliance on pesticide; such as developing potato cultivars which are resistant to diseases.”
Picking up on this point, AgFunderNews asked co-author Nicolas Munier-Jolain, INRA, how he saw the potential impact of new and emerging biological pesticide solutions, such as Agrosafve.
“Our results are valid according to one specific period in France,” said Munier-Jolain. “As new technologies begin to spread and are adopted by farmers, then the results will change.
“To be adopted by farmers, however, all new technologies must be effective and efficient. If of course, developers can propose new non-chemical solutions to farmers that are both efficient and better for the environment, then I’m sure they will be used, and this could change the future amount of pesticides which are used.”
Finally, in seeking to persuade French farmers to adopt their findings, if only in part, to begin with, the research team added that producers should maybe start by identifying “realistic targets of pesticide use reduction.”
It might be easier, they suggested, to target a selected decrease in either herbicide, fungicide or insecticide use, rather than attempting everything at once.