This is part of the book “Stéphane Foucart et les néonicotinoïdes. The World and disinformation 1” where I show the journalist misinforms (= false or misleading statements) the reader. More specifically, we show here how he neutralizes the voice of farmers to support his misleading image of NNIs and agriculture, presented in 2.I.1 and 2.I.2. All quotes are translated (by me), except the ones marked between [ ] in the french version (french quotes are to numerous to be marked in this one).

We have shown that all the elements of the demonstration leading to the “paradox of the red queen” (27) were false. Now let’s tackle this last idea, that of an agricultural system that pushes the use of increasingly powerful pesticides to maintain yields. The heart of this fable is the stagnation of yields and the existence of a dominant agricultural system, which would determine the consumption of pesticides. We will show that these two elements do not hold either.

The basis: stagnating yields?

The “basis” on which the author builds his “demonstration” of the Red Queen paradox is a graphic on agricultural yields in France:

Yields of several major crops, in France, between 1961 and 2014. FAO/LE MONDE (27)

Here is his interpretation, taking up the end of the previous paragraph:

“The result: yields stagnate only at the cost of endless chemical and technical escalation.

Because, in France, the use of pesticides is growing without falling, but the yields of barley, wheat and corn have not increased since the mid-1990s, according to the United Nations Food Organization. and agriculture. Those for rapeseed have leveled off since the mid-1980s. Those for sunflowers since the end of the 1970s. Thus, at the beginning of the 1990s – ie before the famous neonics were put on the market – the yields of major French crops were not overall not very different from those of today, but the production of honey (an indicator of the health of pollinators) was then more than three times higher than the current one, according to the National Union of French beekeeping…” (27)

We can see several problems with the naked eye:

  • Corn still seems to be on an increasing slope.
  • The yield of rapeseed and sunflower seeds stagnated between 1960 and 1977, then increased (+50% for the first; +20% for the second) before being re-stabilized (from 1985 for the first and from 1980 for the second). second). How does this relate to the NNI? Could the paradox of the red queen also explain the stagnation in the 60s?
  • Why does he not talk about beet yields, which the NNIs seem to have made it possible to greatly increase?

Obviously, the most obvious flaw is that the journalist controls absolutely no variable: the number of extreme episodes (frosts, droughts, etc.), environmental standards (pesticides, water use), changes in agricultural practices (in in the 90s, reasoned agriculture developed more and more, which favors profitability over yields), etc.

Finally, it only provides information on a few cultures. What about the others? It turns out that beet yields went from 65 tonnes / ha in 1990 to 85 in 2013 (Agreste Île-de-France, Number 138 – October 2016). This, even as the price of a ton of beets collapsed…

Last interesting point: it emerges from my interviews that, from the 90s, French farmers stopped looking primarily for yield, which had been the spirit (driven by society, let us remember) since the end of WWII, to reduce more and more inputs and adopt a logic of profitability. So it seems that S. Foucart ultimately blames farmers for actually wanting to get out of a productivist trend…

The missing agricultural model

The notion of an “agricultural model” is difficult to understand. Is there a “baker model”? A “SAAS model”? An “Edtech model”? A “carpenter” model? A “taxi” model? A “lawyer” model? What would the agricultural world have so specific to deserve this qualification and what would it encompass?

In the end, the notion of an agricultural model seems extremely hollow. While it is true that the agricultural world has several important specific institutions (SAFER, chambers of agriculture, cooperatives, etc.), this does not say anything about its practices and business models. Most of the farmers I interviewed had many different productions and different business models.

This is the case, for example, of those I interviewed for my book on agribashing:

  • Damien grows corn, barley, rapeseed, beans, broccoli and squash
  • At the time of the interview, Ernest had two rotation cycles: Beet-durum-corn-durum and rapeseed-durum-soft wheat-barley-soybean-corn.
  • François grows canned peas, flax, rapeseed, corn, chicory and wheat, which he rotates between his different plots. He is also a breeder (milk).

These choices have commercial and agronomic dimensions. “Business models” were varied. François and Ernest have subscribed to cooperative shares to process their beets. Damien sells squash partly to an industrialist and partly to Rungis. François sells his peas to an industrialist.

I explored these questions further in the interviews I did for this book. First of all, there is a multiplicity of productions: milk, meat, wheat, corn, barley, peas… These productions interact with each other. This is particularly the issue of crop rotation, practiced by all the farmers interviewed. Different plants do not sow at the same times and are not susceptible to the same diseases. Varying them allows you to break the cycle of weeds and diseases, to vary the molecules used, etc. This is because when you are growing a crop, you are usually confronted with weeds growing at the same time as them. It is also an organizational asset, it allows work to be spread over the year and, for breeders, to better manage their manure stocks. Finally, there are economic issues: not all farms have the same opportunities.

You also have an infinity of small arrangements. Thus, Marion was able to eliminate its use of fungicides on its wheat by sowing a mixture of different cereals: barley, wheat, triticale… This was however only possible because they were intended for feeding its cattle. Conversely, livestock droppings are used to fertilize fields and this can impact agronomic practices. Etienne explains to me:

“We are not in the cereal plain, we still have animals, pastures and a lot of manure to bury. […] This is what makes our soils fertile, eh, I use very little chemical fertilizer. And so you have to mix the soil to a minimum… SCA is really zero tillage, just the sowing line. I do more on a light SCA, with work on the first 10 centimeters, to really mix, reincorporate the droppings into the earth. You can’t leave the manure on the ground like that […]. “

Then, you have very different agronomic practices: first of all the different types of tillage (plowing, no-tillage, SCA, etc.), the different varietal strategies (eg: mixing cereal species for self-consumption, mixing varieties, etc.), different observation – reaction strategies (I’m waiting to see this to apply this; I look forward to seeing this and dealing with that), etc.

All these elements can be combined freely: for example, you can perfectly use advanced agronomic practices to use very few phytosanitary products and only work with a cooperative or else stick to the agronomic bases and have many supply and distribution channels. All this can be done with small as with very large farms, in combination with breeding or not …

Where is the “agricultural model” of which S. Foucart speaks?

Dubious alternatives

It is all the more incomprehensible that the agriculture presented as an alternative is either

  • organic farming, which uses pesticides and has cooperatives and agronomic advice …
  • agronomic practices… already widely used in this “dominant agricultural model”, such as crop rotation (this is even the rule more than the exception…).

When it comes to organic farming, it is no less “industrial” than conventional farming. It’s just another specification. Moreover, Christophe Caroux, president of “Bio en Hauts-de-France”, recently called, in reaction to a publication highlighting copper pollution, to “rethink the structure of the sector, the race for yield, and review the choice varieties to favor those which are resistant to diseases”. It should also be remembered that spinosad, a neurotoxic insecticide toxic to bees, even at doses comparable to the most aggressive NNIs (and moreover acts on almost the same nicotinic receptors as NNIs).

When it comes to agronomic practices, the absurdity of the journalist’s words is evident from the study of soil conservation agriculture, which I found interesting to present to you here.

Illustration: soil conservation agriculture

This is arguably the main trend in “agroecology”: soil conservation agriculture, SCA. This practice, or rather these sets of practices, show several realities that completely destroy the monolithic and smooth image that S. Foucart paints of agriculture. SCA is based on three pillars:

  • Use covering cultures
  • Diversified rotations
  • No tillage

It has several strengths. Notably :

  • It increases the organic matter of the soil (“this is what makes fields profitable in the long term” Igor).
  • The soil is more coherent, it is more resistant to erosion. It is for this reason that all the mountain farmers interviewed practiced SCA or no tillage. As their fields are often sloping, they are exposed to significant risks of erosion.
  • The crop is more resistant to extremes (drought / floods).
  • There is less expense and wear and tear associated with the use of the tractor.
  • You are not exposed to the problem of stones (which must be removed for plowing) in the fields.
  • Leaving the soil in place favors the work of earthworms and, with the cover, the biodiversity of the soil.

SCA is very popular and, among the farmers interviewed, 4 claim it, 5 are without plowing and only 4 practice plowing (two of which tried without). This is probably a selection bias, but you can see that this innovation is successful and that effective agronomic advances are spreading throughout the farming community.

This is not, however, a magic solution. It is also very technical and can take a long time for observation and monitoring. One of the main difficulties seems to be decompacting the soil. Compact soil is soil where seeds have difficulty germinating and where roots cannot spread. This is why the humidity and having small fields makes the practice more difficult:

  • Moisture makes the soil more likely to compact under the wheels of agricultural machinery.
  • The fact of having small plots means that you cannot have very large equipment, which makes it possible to limit the passage per hectare.

Plowing has many agronomic roles and doing without them is not easy. One of them is being able to manage weeds. SCA farmers therefore only have chemical or agronomic solutions (which have their limits) to manage weeds. The use of glyphosate, when there is a need to “start from scratch”, is widespread. Likewise, if the logic is to reduce inputs as much as possible (fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, etc.), there may still be a need for them. Moreover, the beet growers questioned (of which 3 were in SCA) used all NNIs.

The most extraordinary thing is that one of the pillars of this agriculture, plant cover, is compulsory in many regions! The “nitrate” directive (91/676 / EEC), which was applied at the end of 1991, prompted a more rigid framework for the spreading of livestock manure and made it necessary to install covers:

“This is how, on nearly 70% of the French UAA, farmers are required to set up intermediate nitrate trap crops (Cipan) in the fall, in order to capture, during this wet period, nitrogen residues from crops and nitrogen resulting from the mineralization of organic matter. In thirty years, the Cipans given birth, today forming the large family of plant covers recognized for their multiple uses and agronomic virtues. […]

We have shown that cover crops has a technical interest, notes Serge Letellier, agronomic manager of the Gersycoop cooperative in the Gers. Our members have reduced their charges and / or lowered their returns, and the mindset has changed: cover crops is now seen as an investment rather than a cost. “On the territory of this organization, fields made up of unstable silt and clay-limestone soils on hillsides are sensitive to erosion.”

Source : Couverts végétaux, Un outil agronomique multifonction, Terre-net

To go further, I recommend the article from that I have just cited, which is very interesting and clear. You can obviously also follow and ask questions to farmers on Twitter, many of whom are implementing innovative practices and sharing on this topic.

In short, we therefore have the main stream of agroecological agriculture which combines very well with the use of phytosanitary products (it would even be difficult to do without, especially for glyphosate). What remains, faced with this reality, of the fable of the paradox of the red queen?

Anticipation: unionism and agriculture

Let us finish with one of the other mechanisms widely used by those who carry these discourses on the “agricultural model” (S. Foucart is far from being the only one): the idea that the FNSEA would be a sort of appendix of this model and that all its members or representatives would carry this vision of agriculture. They thus draw a very negative image of this union, which would force many people to adopt an agriculture that does not care about its environmental impact. This image makes no sense (is your chess club forcing you to promote a certain specific view of chess?), but it is not the purpose of this insert.

It seemed interesting to me to specify that, among the farmers interviewed, there was no identifiable correlation between agricultural practices (no tillage, setting up original agronomic practices and reducing the consumption of phytosanitary products, selling the production directly, etc.) and unionism (or non-unionism). Even the vision of cooperatives is not clear-cut, several of the FNSEA farmers interviewed making critical statements about cooperatives (especially on the excesses of the bigger ones). An FDSEA executive even told me about challenging the term “exploitations” (used to designate farms in France):

“Then afterwards he (a former minister) unrolled his vision of agriculture a bit and one of the first things he said (I found that very… it’s even more true now than at the time.), is that the term exploiter is completely inappropriate […], because in fact a farmer does not exploit […], a farmer does not exploit animals, it does not exploit the land, it does not exploit people, etc. The more we use [this word], we don’t realize it […], but outside our sphere, it can have negative connotations. […] That’s just the word, we don’t have to change anything actually. […] I cultivate my grandfather’s land […], today my land, the land of my late grandfather, they are much more suitable for cultivation than 30 or 40 years ago. Whereas if they were “exploited”, we could no more cultivate. Like a mine! A mine […] when it is finished mining, there is no more ore. Whereas land or a farm is different.

– Okay. Because you add value to your work tool?

– Yeah ! Exactly. We maintain it, we give it value.”

In short, I have nowhere seen the hegemonic vision that some activists portray of it.
It was unfortunately necessary to clarify it, this criticism being omnipresent on the subject (once again, in order to muzzle the farmers, who are a large majority to vote for the FNSEA in the various agricultural elections). Thus, the journalist appropriates several elements of debates in the agricultural sphere (trade unionism, cooperatives, etc.) to integrate them into his own storytelling, even if it means completely distorting them.

Assimilation to pesticide manufacturers

After the aphid infestation that decimated, among other things, beet fields in 2020, S. Foucart faced a problem: many farmers were calling for NNIs, especially on social networks. This was obviously contradictory with his storytelling of farmers being the victims coerced by the pesticide sellers. One of the most popular arguments was that beets are not visited by pollinators, being harvested before harvest. Here is what the reporter wrote about the argument:

Circulated by agribusiness circles and taken up by the Ministry of Agriculture in its communication, this argument has been widely echoed on social networks by elected officials and political leaders.” (64)

Thus, farmers were then assimilated to “agribusiness circles”.

“Promoted by agribusiness circles, taken up by the Minister of Agriculture, echoed by journalists and multiplied endlessly on social networks by thousands of little hands, a single element of language has swept away all of this. No one is unaware of it any more: “A bee, that will not go foraging in the fields of beetroot.” (66)

Here the farmers are either in “agribusiness circles” or its “thousands of little hands”. The author, by thus equating farmers with pesticide manufacturers or their agents (“little hands”), neutralizes the risk that their voices represent for his argument. This method of neutralizing agricultural speech is however older. In the same idea, you have:

“Let us recall that the introduction of these substances in Europe, in the mid-1990s, and their massive adoption by the dominant agricultural model coincided with the acceleration of the decline of honey bees and, above all, with a collapse of the whole of entomofauna.” (45)

Here, the farmers disappear: it is no longer them who buy / use the NNI, it is “the dominant agricultural model”.

“But, say the agrochemicals who market these products [NNI], we have to feed humanity. ” (30)

By asserting that this is the agrochemists’ argument, he leaves open (and very likely) the interpretation that the ‘we must feed humanity’ argument is that of the agrochemists. In fact, this is a lot the farmers’ argument. As in the previous case, the implicit is that they would be the agents of the agrochemicals. This is obviously absurd and insulting. For those who have the slightest doubt, I encourage you to follow the farmers on social networks: @agridemain and @fragritwittos on Twitter, as well as the many extension workers on Youtube (David Forge, Thierryagri, Agrikol…).

Thus, there is nothing which holds in the argument developed by S. Foucart starting from the alleged uselessness of the NNI:

  • they are effective if used well;
  • farmers are not incompetent victims subject to the pesticide consumption injunctions of their cooperatives;
  • here is no “agricultural model” which would assume a certain use of pesticides.