21 January 2020

Pesticides: an issue that poisons our agriculture

If you enter “pesticides” in the search engine of the French Ministry of Agriculture, you will be directed towards a page dedicated to the “Plan Écophyto” (in French) aiming at reducing the use of pesticides in the country. There, you will be invited to read a series of articles about the objectives of the plan and its implementation. Unless you are daring enough to clic on a small group of words reading ‘comité de suivi’ (monitoring committee, written in green and French), you will be led to believe that France, who was awarded the title of world champion of food sustainability, is in the process of reducing its consumption of pesticides.

You would be wrong to think so.

The Écophyto failure

According to a press release by the government, ‘after a slight decrease in 2017, the [Écophyto strategic orientation and monitoring] committee found a strong global increase in the quantities of phytopharmaceuticals sold in 2018’.

The press release drafters accomplish the feat not to present any data on the increase observed, but they add that “This evolution seems linked to an anticipation of the purchases at the end of year 2018, towards the increase on 1st January 2019 of the fees on diffuse pollution taxing the substances of highest concern”. By contrast, they advertise the decrease of “the number and quantities of substances of highest concern” (which seems contradictory with the explanation given to increased purchases), progress made in the field of biocontrol, environmental certification of production units, and organic farming, with, in all these cases, data for illustration.

In order to get precise figures on the pesticide situation in France, you will therefore have to go to other sources such as the interview (in French), given to a French radio, of the Director of the Générations Futures association, according to whom “ for the number of doses of pesticides used, there is an increase of more than 24% between 2017 and 2018… following an increase of around 12% since the beginning of the [Écophyto] plan in 2009”, while the objective of that plan was to decrease the use of pesticides by 50% in ten years.

The reasons for failure

Why is the Écophyto plan a failure, despite the government having spent 700 million euros to implement it?

Générations Futures puts the failure on the account of a lack of cooperation of the FNSEA, the main farmer union, the absence of any coercion (all depends on non-binding commitments that are not respected), a use of subsidies that does not encourage sufficiently the cessation of use of pesticides, as well as a lack of agreement amont the EU member countries.

The argument often put forwards to explain the difficulty in abandoning pesticides, is also the lack of a viable alternative. And often, as for example in the case of glyphosate, it is believed that the alternative is “another molecule”.

A major flaw in devising solutions

The solution to the issue of pesticides is not in the discovery of new molecules, of innocuous pesticides, as they would be ineffective.

Indeed, it must be known that it is highly unlikely - if not impossible - to find molecules toxic for undesired plants (herbicides for weeds), pests (insecticides and parasiticides) or fungus (fungicides) that would be so well designed that they would have their toxic effect only on targeted organisms. These molecules (and their adjuvants) would almost always have unexpected and undesirable toxic “collateral effects” on the environment and on consumers (in the case these products leave residues in food or water) and therefore would present high risks of being unacceptably dangerous. The same goes for GM plants able to produce themselves the pesticides required to be protected [read].

Therefore, the question is not to change molecules, but to modify in-depth the agriculture system and its technologies, as illustrated by alternatives used by innovating farmers. It is, of course, a more complicated solution to apply that to find a new molecule, as it requires to put in motion a strategy to prevent weeds, pests and diseases (i.e. preventive measures) that will have implications upstream of agriculture (for seed and agrochemical industries) as well as downstream (for marketing, processing and consumption of agricultural and food products), where well-established habits will have to change for all actors of the sector as well as for consumers. This will therefore take time and, because it requires time, there is a need to start immediately without waiting any further.

Solutions exist…

Viable alternatives exist, and they are already being used by some innovative farmers.

There is, out there, a whole gamut of systemic solutions that are more or less demanding and sustainable. Below are some examples that are already being implemented by farmers. They are ranked according to increasing levels of sustainability:

  1. high environmental value agriculture that satisfies a number of criteria limiting certain negative impacts of conventional chemical agriculture [read];

  2. integrated farming that aims at making agricultural systems more robust and able to better combat pests [read];

  3. organic farming; and

  4. permaculture.

Several alternative practices are also be listed here that may be used within alternative systems:

  1. mulching (against weeds), particularly used on small areas (gardens, horticultural production)

  2. the use of natural insecticides (accepted in the framework of organic agriculture) that, even though being natural, present toxicity and a possible danger;

  3. the use of biological control of pests that relies on the use of natural processes (the best known being probably the use of ladybirds to combat aphids, but there are many others, as for example push-pull);

  4. crop diversification (diversified rotations instead of monoculture).

One of the characteristics of many of the systemic solutions is that they are quite specific to the place where they may be applied, as they must be well adapted to local agroecological conditions insofar as they use natural biological processes. They must also fit to economic and social characteristics of the production units in which they are used. They generally require intensive research and testing in which farmers themselves must play a central role [read on innovative farmers in the UK].

To conclude, it is not realistic, if not impossible, to envisage a generalised recipe as is the case for unsustainable conventional agrochemical agriculture that is based on an artificialisation of production [read].

… and there is a need to create favourable conditions for their implementation

In order not to limit the use of alternatives to a minority of activist producers and generalise them so that their impact can be fully felt, favourable conditions are required [read] and obstacles to the transition towards a sustainable and climate-friendly food and agriculture must be overcome.

For this, there is a need to reorient subsidies. The EU’s new Green Deal will certainly have consequences on the way the mass of agricultural subsidies will be used in the future. One may hope that this money will be used to encourage and support the food transition, considering that food is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions [read].

With Brexit, the UK is currently discussing a new Agricultural Bill 2019-20 that foresees new modalities for agricultural subsidies in order to pay farmers with public money for the public goods they provide, i.e. environmental services such as protection of soil, water and wildlife. In this context, there is a plan to encourage agroforestry and conservation agriculture.

Similarly, there will be a need to reorient agricultural research so that its aims and analytical methods do not consider agricultural technologies only from a limited point of view (physical productivity or financial profitability, for example), but that it adopts a systemic approach that takes into consideration all the dimensions of the food and agricultural issue [read].

An example of a partial analysis: Alternatives to glyphosate in viticulture, INRA (National Institute for Agricultural Research, France), 2019.

In this study, although its title speaks of alternatives in plural, there is only one alternative to glyphosate that is being considered: mechanical weeding, a technology that carries the disadvantages of being demanding in energy and generating greenhouse gas emissions.

It is interesting - and worrying - to see that the INRA, in 2019, only analyses this alternative from a financial point of view, at a time when there is more and more concern about climate change and loss of biodiversity. [read in French].

As long as the analyses conducted by INRA will not integrate other dimensions than economics, it is likely that this organisation will not be in a position to make useful recommendations in the context of the transition towards more climate-friendly and sustainable technologies!


Jacquet, F., et al., Alternatives au glyphosate en viticulture - Evaluation économique des pratiques de désherbage, INRA, Science & Impact, 2019.

Last but not least, it will be necessary to sensitise and inform consumers so that they adopt more sustainable consumption patterns and reduce waste.


To know more :

  1. Glyphosate - the Debate, Garden Organic, website.

  2. Organic Farming, website.

  3. Integrated farming and sustain…, Alimentarium website.

  4. Alternatives aux pesticides, website, Générations futures (in French).

  5. What is permaculture? Permaculture Association website.

  6. Innovative Farmers, UK, website.

Sélection d’articles déjà parus sur liés à ce sujet :

  1. The dangers of a “partial” impact analysis: the example of a study on the impact of a 100% conversion to organic farming in England and Wales, 2019.

  2. Obstacles to transition, 2019.

  3. Policies for a transition towards more sustainable and climate friendly food systems, 2018.

  4. Monsanto case: a result that does not solve the problem and illustrates the perverse nature of the so-called “consumer protection system”, 2018.

  5. Is France world champion of food sustainability?  2018.

  6. Production and use of pesticides: an infringement on the rights to food and health, 2017.

  7. Climate is changing - Food and Agriculture must too - Towards a “new food and agricultural revolution”, 2016.

  8. A new generation of GMOs based on the RNA interference technology evades regulation and is likely to flood the US market. What about the rest of the world? 2015.

and other articles under our “sustainable food and agriculture” category.


Last update:    January 2020

For your comments and reactions: