March 2. 2024. 3:19

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Integrated pest management struggling to gain ground in France

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is struggling to gain traction in France, despite being promoted by both the EU and the French authorities and having proven benefits for farmers and the environment.

IPM consists of a wide variety of strategies like crop rotations, reducing grain density, and substituting chemical pesticides – all of which require considering the ecosystem as a whole.

However, such practices are not widespread in France.

While sales of plant protection products fell sharply in 2019, they rebounded by 23% in 2020. “Over the past 10 years, they have remained at high levels,” the government acknowledged.

As early as 2008, the government’s Ecophyto plan aimed at halving the use of pesticides within ten years while maintaining a competitive agriculture sector. This was followed by a postponement of the deadline to 2025 in the framework of Ecophyto II, then II +.

To achieve this, France intends to “strengthen the dissemination of the principles of integrated crop protection”.

But for François Veillerette, spokesperson for the NGO Générations futures, “the state does not propose any levers” to generalise IPM, “apart perhaps from the levy on diffuse pollution, but that is hardly a deterrent”.

This levy on diffuse pollution, adjusted to how toxic and dangerous the substances used are, was set up to encourage farmers to use less polluting products and to eliminate or reduce their use by implementing more environmentally friendly practices.

In 2020, the French Court of Auditors criticised the government for failing to implement its strategy.

Recalling the government’s commitment to “encourage the use of integrated pest management and alternative methods or techniques”, the court of auditors said: “Ten years later, the objectives set have not been achieved”.

The same is true at the EU level.

Although the application of the IPM principles is already provided for in the 2009 EU directive on the use of pesticides, initiatives in this area are slow to materialise and support measures are largely lacking, according to the European Court of Auditors.

More inclusive than organic

According to IPM advocates, the approach is more inclusive than organic farming and guarantees significant reductions in the use of plant protection products.

The IPM stance on curbing the use of pesticides is harder than what is proposed by other sustainable farming practices such as conservation farming, precision farming, and the ones promoted in the French government’s High Environmental Value (HVE) certification.

“To be effective, different techniques are combined. Plant protection products should be the last resort, only after having explored everything,” Bertrand Omon, an agronomist at the Normandy Chamber of Agriculture and supervisor of a group of ten farmers in the DEPHY network, told EURACTIV.

From the 2010s onwards, some farmers adopted this approach without complying with organic farming standards. This includes réseau DEPHY, which today includes 3,000 farms from across sectors, including viticulture, arboriculture, and vegetable production.

Their aim is to halve the use of plant protection products – a target that since 2007 has been taken up in several of the government’s so-called Ecophyto plans.

The DEPHY farms in Normandy, which have been monitored for 15 years, show positive indicators for biodiversity and human health, with much less use of pesticides, said Omon. In 2010, 12 farms managed to halve the use of pesticides, while 12 others did not. Today, 13 farms managed while 11 did not.

On a national scale, out of 694 systems, the Treatment Frequency Indicator (TFI) of the DEPHY network farms decreased by 19% in field crops between 2017 and 2019.

European Parliament: Tax pesticides to fund integrated pest management

A national ‘risk-based tax’ on pesticides to fund more sustainable alternatives has been proposed by the European Parliament lawmaker leading the EU’s plans to slash the use and risk of plant protection products by 2030.

What’s behind this failure?

A recent study conducted by the French agricultural research centre (CIRAD) and the French institute of agronomical research (INRA) explained that what led to the failure of IMP was the lack of clear terms and many definitions.

In particular, this can lead to contradictory strategies, said the study – which analysed 400 studies on integrated protection.

The study’s authors thus called for agroecology to take over the ‘old’ concept of IPM, in order to “put the principles of ecology back at the heart of crop protection”.

Omon, however, disagreed about agroecology making things easier.

While it is an “inspiring” concept, it has also led to a relaxation of “proven agronomic concepts” and resulted in fewer tangible targets.

“Everyone has done their own thing and everyone claims to be an agroecologist,” Omon warned.

Still, integrated protection appears to be good for the economy: IPM practices reduce yields but not the profitability of the farm, and even increase most of the time, according to a detailed report by INRA written in 2009.

This is because expenses, which are reduced due to the drop in pesticides, are passed on to profits.

“There is no loss of profits,” Omon confirmed after 15 years of monitoring crops in the Eure.

However, despite local successes, the initiatives of the DEPHY network are having difficulty breaking through the glass ceiling of “massification”.

Omon recognised the difficulties of generalising integrated protection.

According to him, it is increasingly difficult for farmers to remain in this system, which continues to encourage the use of pesticides despite everything.