Is France on its way to ban pesticides?

If you thought Brexit was the only source of entertainment with yelling people, bickering politicians and social media exploding with discussions between people who don’t listen to each other, you’re wrong! France experienced a very heated summer, and climate change for once has nothing to do with it. The subject that heated people’s tempers more than the tropical temperatures was the introduction of so-called non-treatment zones for farmers, proscribing them to spray pesticides within a certain distance of neighboring homes and schools. 

On September 9, 2019 the French government launched a 3-week national consultation on a proposal to ban the use of pesticides in a 5 metre zone from housing for low crops and in a 10 metre zone for high crops, including vines. France is the first country to launch non-treatment zones to protect the population’s health, the proposal being a joint effort between the three ministers of agriculture, health and ecological transition. Debates on the use of pesticides are obviously not new, but a very symbolical and highly mediatised case accelerated things substantially in 2014 when school children in Villeneuve, a town in Bordeaux’ Blaye region, became nauseous due to the spraying of fungicides in next-door vineyards.

Several attempts were undertaken since then to introduce non-treatment zones and other measures, that were subsequently withdrawn by court rulings after protest of agricultural lobby groups. French farmers and their representative bodies vehemently oppose government plans to curb the use of pesticides, arguing that they will lose thousands of hectares. They also point to the fact that spraying procedures have evolved already and that they follow strict rules on the use of pesticides, based on scientific research. Factors such as the speed of wind, the amount of pressure, and the type of spraying device used, are indeed taken into account before deciding how, when and where to spray. These arguments, however, did not placate civil society groups and environmental organizations, who find the farmers’ efforts and the government’s current proposal too little too late.

Enter a whole new dimension in the debate, as organic and natural wine enthusiasts started asking why it was necessary to use pesticides in the first place. However appealing this thought may seem, conventional farmers were quick to point out that copper, accepted in organic agriculture, is a fungicide, and not particularly good for people’s health either. The 2014 Villeneuve case aptly demonstrated their point, as one of the two vineyard owners who were charged, was an organic wine maker.

Daniel Cueff, mayor in the Breton town of Langouët, decided to take the law in his own hands and banned the use of pesticides and herbicides within 150 metres of housing. Needless to say that this caused quite a stir, some farmers arguing they would lose entire plots if this became a national measure. Unfortunately for Mr Cueff his decision was overruled in court, the judge arguing that decisions on the use of phytosanitary products are the mandate of the minister of agriculture. The latter, Didier Guillaume, was also quick to declare that non-treatment zones of 150 metres would be “madness for the consumer”.

There is, however, an alternative for the government’s one-size-fits-all regulation, and that’s curiously an alternative that Didier Guillaume favors in the first place : local charters. The idea is that local citizens and farmers get together and work out a compromise that suits them. Only in the absence of a local charter will the national rules be applied. This solution is also largely favored by the farmer organizations, who would hate to see “Paris” imposing rules on them. While the local charters leave room for flexibility and compromise, it is, however, no option not to have non-treatment zones at all. They may be reduced to 5 metres instead of 10 “if more performing spraying devices can be used”. If the idea of locally negotiated charters seems a good idea to some, it may prove challenging in areas where the powers that be are also in the business of wine making. Again, the 2014 Bordeaux case was telling, as the local mayor at that time was actually one of the two vineyard owners who were charged for spraying in the presence of school children.

At the date of publication of this article, the number of comments on the ministry of agriculture’s website grew to a whopping 27,000. While other consultations mostly fail to attract any attention at all, this one clearly shows that the heated summer is very likely to extend in a heated fall. With France topping the Food Sustainability Index, which also looks at sustainable agriculture, for three consecutive years, it comes as no surprise that it is the first country putting non-treatment zones on the political agenda. While it will be interesting to see what the final outcome will be in France, it’s equally intriguing to see how little debate there is in other countries. Will France’s regulation provoke similar initiatives in other EU countries? The French chest-beating that comes with the acknowledgement of their efforts on sustainability might just trigger new dynamics elsewhere. Or then again, it also might not.

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