French Lessons: What Others Can Learn From France's Alternative Farming Systems

Many of the alternatives to glyphosate (and pesticides in general) have long been practiced by farmers around the world. These systems – referred to as conservational, organic, sustainable, or, recently, ‘regenerative’ – promise to reduce soil erosion and nutrient and water runoff, among other benefits, while maintaining yields.

France Leads the Search for Alternative Farming Systems

Farmers in western Europe, where genetically modified (GM) crops are not authorized, are at the head of the pack to find these alternatives. They are already used to paying more for their crop protection products than other regions. While glyphosate use has been increasing globally since the introduction of GM glyphosate-resistant crops in the 2000s, the largest EU glyphosate user, France, represents a drop in the bucket with a measly 9,000 metric tons of the 700,000 metric tons of glyphosate (active ingredient) sold worldwide. Yet France provides other regions and agricultural systems an exemplar for the process of identifying alternative agriculture systems.

Since the French government launched the Ecophyto plan in 2008, it has aimed to reduce agrochemical use from 2008 levels by half by 2025. At the same time, the government proposed banning all glyphosate by 2020 (where an alternative exists) and banning all uses by 2022. It’s easy to write this off as only a political ambition that neither the agrochemical industry nor producers can realistically meet, but there is more to it. After the slim renewal of glyphosate in Europe in 2017, France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) published a report examining glyphosate uses and alternatives in French agriculture, including the economic and logistical implications of alternatives. The report concluded that alternatives to glyphosate already exist for almost 90% of agricultural areas. The alternatives are locally adapted, systems-based approaches and vary by crop, rotation, climate, and terrain. They include tillage, precision farming and robotics, breeding, cover crops, crop rotations/intercropping, and even livestock integration. For cereal and oilseed crops, the main alternatives to using pesticides are precision farming, mechanical weeding, and shallow tillage. However, in some systems, such as no-till agriculture and terraced vines, glyphosate has a huge competitive advantage.

A Call to Action for the Agrochemical Industry

These new systems are knowledge-intensive and sustainability-minded for the consumer of tomorrow but not necessarily profitable in the short-run for farmers or the industry. At the moment, many farmers are demanding a longer transition period to build up their new toolbox of agriculture practices. So far, Ecophyto has developed an impressive resource bank that includes robotics, biologicals, extension services, and financial mechanisms to help French farmers adopt new farming practices.

The long process to develop and authorize a new active ingredient (+10 years and +USD 200m), in addition to the EU’s stringent and complex authorization process for crop protection active ingredients (AI) and products, begs the agrochemical industry to look for new ways to add value. More biotech startup companies are crossing over to add new value and solutions to traditional seed and agrochemical companies. Biologicals utilize microbes’ (like bacteria and fungi) symbiotic and beneficial effects. The number of new biological pesticides has been increasing substantially, though from a low level. One biocontrols trade association estimates that by 2025 one-quarter of crop protection products in France will come from biocontrols. In the next article on this topic, we will discuss the growth of biologicals globally and especially in Brazil.

A Bumpy Transition

If these new agricultural systems result in higher production costs and possibly lower yields (like organic systems, for example), this will potentially lower western European farmers’ competitive position in the short run. The hope for new revenue streams from biodiversity, carbon storage, and paid ecosystems services is on the horizon, but will it be in time to offset farmers’ transition to regenerative or pesticide-lite farming? Agrochemical companies should decide how to seize this transition as an opportunity to become part of the future of farming. See the previous article, Exploiting Megatrends: Collaboration vs. Origination in Farm Inputs, to read about the benefits of further collaboration for farm input companies.