Mikael Fremont was up to his shoulders in rapeseed, looking pleased. The bright yellow flowers had faded, giving way to long slender pods that would yield valuable canola oil, as well as protein meal for livestock. While his spaniel darted about the farm here in May, the burly 41-year-old grower wanted to point out something nearly hidden: a mat of tattered, dead leaves covering the soil.
Months earlier, Fremont had planted this vetch and clover along with the rapeseed. The two legumes had grown rapidly, preventing weeds from crowding out the emerging rapeseed and guarding it from hungry beetles and weevils. As a result, Fremont had cut by half the herbicide and insecticide he sprayed. The technique of mixing plant species in a single field had worked "perfectly," he said.
This innovative approach is just one of many practices, now spreading across France, that could help farmers achieve an elusive national goal. In 2008, the French government announced a dramatic shift in agricultural policy, calling for pesticide use to be slashed in half. And it wanted to hit that target in just a decade. No other country with as large and diverse an agricultural system had tried anything so ambitious. The goal "was very revolutionary," says Henriette Christensen of the Pesticide Action Network in Brussels, especially because France is the second largest consumer of pesticides in Europe.
Since then, the French government has spent nearly half a billion euros on implementing the plan, called Ecophyto. It created a network of thousands of farms that test methods of reducing chemical use, improved national surveillance of pests and plant diseases, and funded research on technologies and techniques that reduce pesticide use. It has imposed taxes on farm chemicals in a bid to decrease sales, and even banned numerous pesticides, infuriating many farmers.
The effort has helped quench demand on some farms. Overall, however, Ecophyto has failed miserably. Instead of declining, national pesticide use has increased by 12%, largely mirroring a rise in farm production. "We lost 10 years since 2008," says François Veillerette of Générations Futures, an environmental advocacy organization in Paris. "We can't afford to waste 10 more."
The French government agrees. Officials are now finalizing a revised plan dubbed Ecophyto 2+. It will boost research, add demonstration farms, increase taxes on pesticides, and prohibit more compounds. President Emmanuel Macron has even urged a ban of glyphosate, the world's best-selling weed killer and an important tool for many farmers.
Details of the revised plan, including funding levels, are still being decided. But some observers are already skeptical. Farmers fear burdensome rules and increased costs that will put them at a competitive disadvantage. Environmental organizations worry France will again fall short. "There are good ideas," says Carmen Etcheverry, formerly of France Nature Environnement in Paris. "But we don't know how they will be implemented."
There is also optimism. Despite Ecophyto's failure, it showed farmers have powerful options, such as mixing crops, planting new varieties, and tapping data analysis systems that help identify the best times to spray. With the right incentives and support, those tools might make a bigger difference this time around. And the fact that France isn't backing away from its ambitious goal inspires many observers. "You feel," says Robert Finger, an agricultural economist at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, "that something vivid is going on."
When you have more diversity, you have more resilience.
After World War II, synthetic herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides greatly boosted French farmers' harvests and profits. But the chemicals contaminated groundwater, lakes, and streams, and they harmed farm workers and wildlife. Consumers became wary, and by the 1970s public opposition to pesticides was growing.
During the 2000s, pesticide sales fell as farmers applied them with increasing efficiency and sometimes switched to more effective compounds that required smaller doses. But the ambition to do much better crystalized in 2007, when then–French President Nicolas Sarkozy convened a conference to set a 5-year environmental agenda. Ecophyto was the result, negotiated between environmentalists, farm unions, pesticidemakers, and others. It included a major political concession; the 50% cut would be reached "if possible," which meant that much of the plan was voluntary.
Still, Ecophyto served as a catalyst. Research funds were targeted at evaluating smarter ways to use pesticides. Approaches were tested on some 3000 farms that joined a demonstration network. Officials recruited observers around the country to scout for pests and plant diseases and provide weekly reports; the surveillance helps farmers decide when spraying might be a waste of resources. On average, farms in the demonstration network decreased their pesticide use by 18%, and most did it without sacrificing profits.
But France's overall use of chemical pest control went up. Many factors contributed, analysts say. Taxes on chemicals, for example, weren't high enough to influence buying decisions. It was difficult to persuade some farmers to adopt new practices or technologies that might add to their costs or decrease yields. Ecophyto's funding—about €70 million a year since 2016—was too low and "out of all proportion to the challenge," France's inspector general concluded late last year. And market forces, such as high prices for cereals, may have created an incentive to spray more chemicals to protect unusually lucrative harvests.
Yet veterans of Ecophyto aren't discouraged. On many farms, analysts say, it appears that existing technologies and practices alone could cut chemical use by at least 20%. "Without underestimating the extent of the challenge, there are reasons to be optimistic," says Alain Tridon, director of the Ministry of Agriculture's plant health services in Paris.
One source of that optimism can be found on the Ducourt Estate, 450 hectares of rolling vineyards in Ladaux, France, that produces about 3 million bottles of wine each year. In a long garage, massive four-wheeled tractor-sprayers stand 3 meters tall. Each carries a 2200-liter tank for fungicide. Their articulated arms, studded with nozzles, can spray chemicals on four rows of grapes in one pass, killing mildew and other plant pathogens.
Winemakers are France's biggest users of fungicides, although most are based on sulfur and copper, rather than more toxic synthetic molecules. Still, the sight of Ducourt's yellow beasts trundling through the vineyards can unnerve estate neighbors worried about farm chemicals, says Jeremy Ducourt, who helps manage the family owned business. The machines are actually "a big part of the solution," he says. That's because they helped the estate reduce its use of fungicides by about 30%, thanks to nozzles that put more fungicide on the plant and less on the ground. The most advanced sprayers even collect and reuse any lingering mist.
Similar high-efficiency sprayers are available for other crops, and just replacing older models with newer machines could make a dent in France's chemical use. But upgrades don't come cheap. The Ducourt Estate's sprayers, which double as harvesters, cost about €320,000. Add the fact that only 3% of the nation's 200,000 sprayers are replaced each year, and it could take decades to fully upgrade the fleet.
The Ducourt family has also cut fungicide by using decision support software. The program draws on timely weather, surveillance, and other information, such as the size of leaves, to advise when to spray. The tool can reduce fungicide use by about 20% in vineyards, and cereal growers have seen similar results. But such tools haven't yet spread to all farms. Potato farmers, who also spray copious fungicides, now use the tools on about half of their fields, but aim to increase that share to 90% within 5 years.
When it comes to insects, it's much more difficult for software to predict outbreaks in fields. So, farmers must diligently scout their fields so that they can apply insecticides before pests multiply out of control. Ecophyto 2+ aims to boost a noninsecticide approach called biocontrol. In this long-standing approach, farmers confuse pests with pheromones, for example, or seek to reduce populations by introducing the pest's natural predators. Advocates highlight the strategy's success in France's ample fields of maize. There, a tiny introduced parasitic wasp called Trichogramma brassicae has become a key weapon against the corn rootworm, a major pest. The wasps lay their eggs inside the eggs of the rootworms, shrinking populations just as effectively as insecticides when conditions are optimal.
The wasps are not a panacea. Although the costs are roughly comparable to insecticides, more labor is required to hang the cardboard cartons holding the wasps on maize plants. And insecticides remain more popular in southern France, where maize farmers face multiple pests the wasps don't attack. (In other nations, maize farmers control pests with less insecticide by planting genetically modified plants, but engineered crops are not allowed in France.) Despite such limitations, the wasps are now used on 23% of maize hectares where rootworms pose a threat.
The mixed crop technique used by Fremont in his fields of rapeseed demonstrates another use of biology, in this case to control weeds. It's the kind of ancient technique that used to be commonplace. In August, one or more fast-growing legumes are planted between the rows of rapeseed. There's enough space that the legumes don't steal too much water or light, but they keep down weeds and, as a bonus, release nitrogen, a fertilizer. They also seem to minimize insect attacks, although this benefit hasn't been conclusively demonstrated. By the time frost kills the legumes, the rapeseed has grown thick enough that few weeds can challenge it.
Such mixed cropping "is becoming very popular," says Marie-Hélène Jeuffroy, an agronomist with the French National Agricultural Research Institute (INRA) in Versailles. Nationwide, 3% to 5% of France's rapeseed hectares are now coplanted with legumes. That share could grow to 30% by 2030 under a pledge made in July by the French federation of oilseed producers.
One French seed company—Jouffray Drillaud, based in Cisse—sees enough potential in crop mixtures that 2 years ago it stopped selling herbicides, which generated 20% of its revenue. "When you have more diversity, you have more resilience," says Vincent Béguier, R&D director of the firm, which now focuses its weed control on mixed cropping and other nonchemical approaches. "Simplicity is the worst thing for agriculture."
So far, rapeseed growers appear to be reaping the biggest benefits in weed control from mixed cropping. But scientists are searching for other possibilities. Jeuffroy and other participants in ReMIX, a new €5 million research collaboration among 13 European countries, are studying how to optimize mixtures, measure benefits, and remove obstacles to mixed cropping.
France's Ministry of Agriculture is moving to encourage greener approaches by requiring pesticide retailers to inform farmers about 36 alternatives to spraying. Instead of only touting insecticides to kill pests, for example, a dealer might recommend a crop mixture, or traps baited with sexual pheromones to confuse male insects, interfering with reproduction. The goal is to reduce the number of pesticide doses they sell by 20% by 2021. Dealers that miss the goal could face penalties.
To reach Ecophyto's goal of a 50% cut, however, many farmers will need to make more use of another practice—crop rotation. Alternating what's planted in a field, ideally over 5 or 6 years, is among the most effective ways to fight weeds, soil-borne pests and diseases. Switching between peas, wheat, and sugar beets, for example, can prevent pathogens from building up in the soil year after year, while swapping in a pasture grass hinders annual weeds.
Although simple in concept, it can be hard to increase the diversity of crops in rotation. That's because the whole system is locked: Farmers in many regions have specialized in certain crops—such as wheat or potatoes—and rely on finely tuned methods to produce high yields. There is often no nearby market for additional crops, because storage and processing facilities also tend to specialize in dominant crops—as do researchers, advisers, and policymakers. "Everything has been organized around major crops with high use of inputs," says Antoine Messéan, an agronomist with INRA. "It's difficult to get out of this self-reinforcing mechanism."
Crop diversification is not a top priority in the new version of the Ecophyto plan, but the Ministry of Agriculture has asked INRA for advice on how to encourage it. In a related effort, France hopes to double the amount of organic farming, which does not allow synthetic pesticides, to 15% of hectares by 2022. In May, the Ministry of Agriculture announced it will spend €1.1 billion to support organic expansion.
You cannot reduce pesticides if you don’t convince cooperatives that they should change their business model.
The government also faces growing pressure from environmentalists to ban more farm chemicals. The approach is controversial, and farmers complain that greener alternatives aren't always available. After an insecticide called dimethoate was banned in France in 2016, for instance, cherry growers had no effective way to fight an invasive fruit fly, says Eric Thirouin, deputy secretary general at the National Federation of Farmers' Unions in Paris. Meanwhile, the insecticide remains legal in Spain and Italy, he notes, putting French cherry growers at a disadvantage.
In other cases, banning one chemical can cause the use of others to spike, undermining reduction efforts. French wheat growers, for example, relied on neonicotinoids, which are coated on seeds, to protect the plants against aphids and leaf hoppers. Now that they are banned, some growers might increase applications of other insecticides. And there are other kinds of trade-offs. Some specialists fear banning the weed killer glyphosate could increase erosion or greenhouse gas emissions, if farmers start to till the soil to remove weeds. More research on such trade-offs is "urgently needed," Finger says.
In the meantime, it will be crucial to enlist France's farmer-owned cooperatives in making Ecophyto 2+ a success, observers say. French farming is dominated by a handful of these enormous agri-businesses. They buy and trade harvests, and most sell their members seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides. "You cannot reduce pesticides if you don't convince cooperatives that they should change their business model," Messéan says. A few have made strides in this direction, such as Terrena, the €5 billion cooperative headquartered near Ancenis that encouraged Fremont to adopt crop mixtures.
Although the majority of French farmers largely ignored or resisted Ecophyto, they are now showing signs of support. In July, more than 40 farmer organizations issued a "Contract for Solutions" that included pledges to reach specific reduction goals. The pledges represent a turning point, says Thirouin, as farm groups are no longer focused just on fighting pesticide bans. "The idea was to step aside from this defensive position and be proactive," he says. Tridon also sees it as a positive step. "We are really seeing a shift in mindset."
It's not only farmers who will have to adjust if France is to meet its ambitious goals. Reducing the cost of food production to the environment and public health will likely increase the cost to consumers and taxpayers. "Everything is possible," says Eugénia Pommaret, director of the Union of Plant Protection Industries, a pesticide trade group in Paris. "It's just a question of costs."
The key to change will be collaboration among all the players in the food system, adds Florence Leprince, an agronomist at Arvalis, a technical institute for arable crops in Montardon, France. "Solutions exist, but they are far from covering all the needs," she says. "It's more about increasing the commitment of everyone to change the way of producing."