Researchers and farmers work together to reduce dependence on chemicals

In the middle of a field sown with cereals, stakes delimit several patches where small purple and white flowers mingle with tender wheatgrass. An unusual vision of traditional agriculture, born from scientific work to help farmers reduce the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

At a time when the European Union’s strategy to green its intensive agriculture is being called into question amid fears of food shortages, international talks in Geneva are looking at reducing the use of pesticides and the loss of chemicals in nature.

In Deux-Sevres, since 1994, CNRS has had a study area unique for Europe: 450 km2 of agricultural land, more than 400 farms, about forty villages.

Scientists are supporting volunteer farmers to reduce the use of pesticides – probable sources of cancer and death to birds – and chemical fertilizers, water pollutants that are skyrocketing in price.

David Bonnot, a farmer from Mougon, is closely examining the experimental plots. One he treats with a chemical herbicide, another mechanically with a harrow whose teeth tear wild plants, and the third is not processed.

Farmer David Bonnot prepares insecticide before spraying on a field in Mougon, Deux-Sèvres department, March 16, 2022. (AFP/Archive – XAVIER LEOTI)

“It’s dirty in here,” he comments, hunched over little veronica and starflowers. However, he decided to “lower the phytosanitary standards because I think these products are dangerous,” he says. And “the general public is asking for less.”

Mr. Bonnot made his first attempts with a neighbor’s spring harrow. Since then, the agricultural cooperative has invested in a more efficient model.

– Yield –

CNRS researchers will measure wheat yields at each plot just prior to harvest to determine the impact of herbicide reduction.

Meanwhile, David Bonnot sees “savings” in product and equipment purchases.

“I discuss yields and savings with farmers, and indirectly it has a positive impact on biodiversity,” says Vincent Bretagnol, director of research at CNRS.

At the CNRS center in Cheese, “we have shown that conventional farmers can reduce nitrogen and pesticide use by up to a third without losing crops, while increasing their income by reducing costs,” he explains.

However, “even the farmers who participated in the experiment and saw the results firsthand did not change their practices in a blatant way,” the researcher continues.

“In many parts of the world, we are at a stage where the use of fertilizers is not effective in increasing yields,” comments Robert Finger, head of farming systems research at ETH at the University of Zurich, citing Europe and parts of Asia.

– Mutual funds –

Excessive use of fertilizers or pesticides can affect small and large crops. Pepein Schreinemahers, a research fellow at the World Vegetable Center, studies horticulture in countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Farmer David Bonnot prepares insecticide before spraying on a field in Mougon, Deux-Sèvres department, March 16, 2022 (AFP/Archive - XAVIER LEOTI)
Farmer David Bonnot prepares insecticide before spraying on a field in Mougon, Deux-Sèvres department, March 16, 2022 (AFP/Archive – XAVIER LEOTI)

This indicates a significant overuse of pesticides. “Farmers themselves suffer the most from the misuse of agrochemicals,” says Pepein Schreinemachers. “Every farmer has a history of pesticide poisoning, from skin rashes to vomiting and fainting. However, most strongly believe that pesticides are necessary.”

How to change usage?

“You need a combination of factors,” explains Mr. Finger, who advocates developing alternatives between organic and traditional.

Public policy is needed to support alternative practices with a clear medium-to-long-term course to make pesticide and fertilizer prices better reflect their negative impacts, to develop polycrops that are less susceptible to disease, the researcher suggests.

Mr. Bretagnol calls for greater support for farmers, facilitating their efforts and softening the production standards set by the agri-food industry.

In Southeast Asia, the most toxic products should be “banned” or made more expensive to use, while “making alternatives, in particular biopesticides, more accessible,” says Pepein Schreinemachers.

To circumvent farmers’ “risk aversion” in the face of change, the CNRS researchers are considering setting up a mutual fund that would compensate them for losses associated with reduced use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, similar to a model already in place in Italy.

They also want to better engage consumers, in particular through short circuits, “so as not to shift the burden of the transition onto the shoulders of farmers.”

Leave a Comment