by Ramon Seidler, PhD
The Macron Government of France is offering its farmers a way out of glyphosate dependency within the next 3 years.
Millions have been following European discussions on the possible ban (or a new licensing period) for glyphosate-based herbicides; discussions which stemmed from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declaring glyphosate a probable human carcinogen in March, 2015.
European countries finally voted, in November, 2017 to allow glyphosate to be used another 5 years on farms. Although not the time period desired by many, this was less than the time wanted by industry, some countries, and some European agencies.
Germany, after initially abstaining, in a surprise, politically-motivated, change-of-heart, voted to back the European Commission’s proposal to extend the use of the weed-killer for 5 years. The surprise came when then Agricultural Minister Christian Schmidt took it upon himself to cast Germany’s deciding yes vote supporting 5 more years of glyphosate. Neither Chancellor Merkel nor Environmental Minister Barbara Hendricks had been notified of his intent. After the vote, French President Macron said he would take all necessary measures to ban the product, as soon as an alternative was available, and at the latest within three years.
The French solution to glyphosate
In November, 2018, the French government presented possible mechanisms for achieving such a ban. Here is my best understanding on how the French government sees a transition away from glyphosate use while protecting farmers financially.
Overall, the plan emphasizes good farming practices and encourages dialogue among farmers. The government has also declared that no one will be left without a solution if they abandon glyphosate.
The plan also involves:
1. An online platform where farmers can publically declare they are glyphosate free, or are in the process of committing to a glyphosate phase-out. The government anticipates that 25,000 organic farmers will sign up on the online platform since none use glyphosate.
2. A glyphosate phase-out support component where farmers can share experiences online with other farmers (both organic and conventional) who are involved in the phase-out process.
3. A “technical resource bank”–not fully described–but it appears experts will interact with farmers who have questions on how to phase out glyphosate use.
4. A tax for those farmers using glyphosate amounting to 1 Euro per Kilo of glyphosate used. This is referred to as a “phytosanitary” tax on the use of a pollutant. It is anticipated that this tax will generate $50 million euros ($57 million dollars) annually to help farmers transition away from pesticide use.
5. A National “Glyphosate Task Force” will be formed and led by the Ministries of Ecological Transition and Agriculture. With the support of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), and other national agencies, they will report on the actions undertaken and the progress made by farmers in transitioning away from glyphosate based herbicides.
Supporting Macron’s ground-breaking plan, INRA declared that alternatives to glyphosate already exist for nearly 2/3 of the agricultural crop land.
Considerable descriptions are provided in the online platform giving farmers suggestions about changing their farming techniques. The great news is that the recommendations include the use of cover crops, no or minimal tillage and other procedures that encourage healthy soils and discourage weeds and pathogens. It thus appears there may be a major shift to agroecological or perhaps regenerative agricultural principles.
A clear description of how the program is envisioned to develop is offered here.
Glyphosate in Germany
The situation with France’s neighbor Germany seems less well developed and is apparently more complicated by political issues. Here is the situation as of November 6, 2018.
The German Minister for the Environment (Svenja Schulze) is calling for a binding date for the complete cessation of the use of glyphosate. The Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture (Julia Klockner) is resisting a complete phase-out program. She is suggesting a ban on glyphosate in public parks and private gardens and a 2020 start on a program setting aside 10% of each farm to be glyphosate-free. Key details of her suggestions are not yet available though. There is no information as to whether that 10% of the farm is always in the same area or if it rotates around the farm. There is also no mention as to a schedule for increasing the 10% farm set aside area over time.
Schulze also wants to establish pesticide protected areas and establish new regulations on all future pesticide uses in the environment. She does not wish to have new future pesticides without new regulations intended to protect the environment from harms to “biodiversity.”
But aren’t all pesticides harming biodiversity? There are no synthetic pesticides that are 100% directed at a pest only. Exactly how harms to biodiversity will be defined and measured is apparently not yet determined.
Unlike France, neither German minister has provided timing, and other details on their glyphosate phase-out programs, nor how farmers can best be making such a transition.
Through these announcements and actions, the French Government is making it clear it believes there are alternatives to using glyphosate (and other toxic herbicides) in commercial farming practices. This is a fact known to organic farmers since the beginning of agriculture. It’s called organic, agroecological, sustainable, or more recently regenerative agriculture. What is new in all this is the French government is offering mechanisms using 21st century technologies and knowledge to help farmers adopt and adapt traditional farming practices with the aid of online information, robust communication and assistance, and financial incentives to make the switch and get it right. The rewards include lower energy inputs, carbon dioxide sequestration from the atmosphere back into the soil, higher soil organic matter to better hold moisture, increased soil fertility and provide for greater biodiversity, while improving pollinator health, fewer toxic synthetic pesticides in our foods and bodies, and potentially higher financial returns to the farmers. The actual benefits from such a model agricultural system were recently documented in a small North Italian farming town that opted to stop using synthetic pesticides.
It is our hope that this French program to abandon glyphosate use on commercial farms and in public places takes hold and becomes a model for other nations. Perhaps U.S. States, and communities may also be considering a ban on glyphosate. The State of Carinthia, Austria is another example of how pesticides can be banned.
These are important green shoots for sustainable agriculture. Let’s see them nurtured.
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