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).
According to S. Foucart, the cooperatives have a hold over the farmers, to whom they “dictate their way of proceeding”. UNAF sums it up: “Farmers depend on cooperatives and cooperatives depend on pesticides.” (36) In reality, if there is indeed an important debate in agriculture on the dependence on cooperatives and, above all, the behavior of some, there is nothing that comes close to the constraint that the author draws.
Indeed: farmers have the choice of their crops, their cooperatives and their distribution channels in general; they are not obliged to buy their phytosanitary products or seeds from their cooperative; the very idea of “pressures” does not make sense: what is S. Foucart talking about?
An important agricultural debate
The question of cooperatives in the agricultural world seems to be at the heart of many divisions. Indeed, many denounce certain drifts, such as a tendency towards gigantism, a lack of transparency (in particular on invoices) and very questionable governance practices which would make it possible to “lock in” the management. In the end, the agricultural cooperative, designed to be a tool at the service of farmers, would tend to earn a living of its own not being aligned with the interests of its cooperators.
However, even the harshest criticisms are nuanced. Thus, Arthur, who told me a lot about the reprehensible practices in terms of management and governance of certain cooperatives, concludes:
“The job of a farmer is a job […] where you have to have a certain freedom. And I’m very scared, whether in the field of cooperatives, in the field of ADOs, in the field of many things… it is that we are being deprived of our freedom. This is where I am very vigilant, where I have concerns and where I hope I am wrong. And besides that I want to stress that there are cooperatives that are […] really good, there are some who are vigilant, who stay close to the field and to the farmers.” (Arthur)
It may happen that the farmer is to some extent “dependent” on the cooperative. For example, in milk and beets, the farmer can hardly sell to someone else. For beet, this results from the cost of transport: since you produce an enormous biomass (> 80t / hectare), you must have a factory nearby. There is therefore very little choice in France: apart from a few sweets, you have to go through Tereos, Cristal Union or Saint-Louis (which is not a cooperative). For milk, there are many players, both cooperative and private. The stability seems to be linked to the collection routes or to a custom:
“Yes, in the world of milk, buyers (whether cooperatives or the private sector, that doesn’t change the problem much), they have an advantage, because you’re a little linked to them, you don’t leave when you want and anyway you don’t necessarily have someone else who’s going to want to come and pick you up, so you can say “I’m not happy I want you to pay me more for the milk”, we’ll tell you ‘if you want to go bah go ahead’. If you change collector once or twice in your career, it’s the end of the world.” (David)
However, even this “dependency” has nothing to do with the allegations of the journalist. At no time did it emerge that there could be pressure to sell crop protection products. The points of tension seem to be mainly on governance, the purchase price of production, contractual transparency and the use of members’ money. Nothing to do with a constraint to have one practice rather than another. In addition, cooperatives are also dependent on their cooperators: if they do anything, they can be penalized.
The choice of the cooperative (or the private)
First of all, farmers often have several supplier-distributors (the breeders-farmers interviewed often had 4, Igor was working with 6 cooperatives and 7 private companies) and, apart from the cases mentioned above, the choice is free, especially in wheat (which is the main crop in France).
“Originally [in the 1970s and 1980s] there was one (only) cooperative. I have not known. And the person who ran the cooperative was rubbish. From time to time we came to deliver, they refused to give the delivery slip. So we weren’t paid. We had delivered a load, and your load was a gift for the coop. The weights on the stuff, that was rubbish. Finally, there was no control, there was nothing… So people got fed up and little by little everyone organized themselves at home to store in order to be able to market elsewhere.” [He precises a posteriori: “but we do not change the way we work quickly given the investments it represents] (Igor)
Even for milk and beet, there are sometimes possibilities. For example, a group of mountain breeders realized that supermarkets sold their milk more expensive than others because it was “from the mountains”. They then organized themselves into an association to directly market their milk (APLM, Association of mountain milk producers) and created their brand, “Mont lait” (=”Mountain milk” but sounding like “my milk”).
Several of the farmers interviewed do not even work with cooperatives at all or sell their produce to a cooperative and buy their phytosanitary products from a trader or other cooperative. For example, I was able to talk to a farmer who sold his pork to one cooperative, his calves to another, made direct sales, consumed part of the production from his fields, sold the rest to a broker and supplied himself. at traders!
Finally, even in cases where the farmer is “stuck” with a cooperative, there is still a choice to stop production, for example by planting something other than beets or raising cattle for meat. Not to mention that the cooperative members, having voting rights at general meetings, can assert their demands. It is therefore in the interests of cooperatives to not despise the interest of their cooperators.
No obligation on sales of phytosanitary products
Farmers are not forced to buy their phytosanitary products from their cooperative. They can go through private traders or through the internet. The prices offered by the cooperative are not always the most advantageous. The competence and integrity of the technician are selection criteria:
“In recent years, I’ve taken on a trader, then we also work a bit with the cooperative… We work a bit with everyone. […] It’s a bit of a feeling. I have been working with the private sector for a few years, because I find the technician, it is… how to put it… I find it good. And sometimes he says to me “this is not worth treating”. I find he has an economic reasoning too. He doesn’t tell me “you have blueberries, it’s a disaster”, [he says] “you have less X blueberries per m², it’s going to cost too much for the gain in yield, it’s useless “… I appreciate his approach.” (Julien)
S. Foucart’s claims are all the more absurd as NNIs seem to allow less insecticide use:
“- I ask the question because, one of the things that Foucart says is that the NNIs are counterproductive and that, if we used them, it is because the cooperatives were encouraged to sell the phytos and that , suddenly… and given that farmers depend on cooperatives, which depend on phytos, that makes use of NNIs.
– It costs me more to pass insecticides afterwards, than to use NNIs as a farmer. I guess the co-op takes a percentage markup every time. So the co-op needs to make money selling [foliar] insecticide rather than selling NNIs. […] And then the NNIs, when we could use them on wheat […], when we make our farm seeds ourselves, we are free to use the dose we want. And the Ferial, we put half-dose and half-dose, which was more than enough for what we wanted.” (Igor)
Second, this does not prevent cooperatives from being able to give advice that is more focused on increasing yields than increasing profits:
“The crop cooperative needs a volume of merchandise to market at the end of the year, that’s what they’re making money on, so they’ll do anything to secure that. Whereas the farmer needs a margin to be profitable and to support his family. So he doesn’t necessarily need maximum output, if it costs him 3 times as much.” (Igor)
It is nevertheless risky: as we have seen, the farmer, if he realizes it, is very likely to lose confidence in his advisor, to look elsewhere and to talk about it around him. In any case, it has nothing to do with “pressures” to explain the use of unnecessary pesticides.
No obligation on seed sales
The sham is even more blatant with seed sales: farmers always have the choice of using farm-saved seed. However, it is a task that requires time and the intervention of a contractor to sort and process the seeds. There is also a need for specific know-how in the harvested crop. In addition, the seeds purchased guarantee a specific genetic heritage and a certain germination rate. As for the “F1” hybrids, they are much less productive after the first generation, so farmers buy them back to maintain genetic purity and its benefits.
Farm seeds represent an important part of straw cereal seeds. For example, for common wheat in 2014, 56% of areas were sown with and 5% with a mixture of farm seeds and certified seeds. (Agreste 2018). For other crops, such as beets or oilseed rape, it is much rarer. Indeed, while the grain of wheat can be reseeded as marketed, the cultivation of beets is different depending on whether you cultivate them for their seed or for their flesh. Beyond that, farmers can buy their seeds from many actors: cooperatives, traders, etc.
I had the chance to discuss the subject with François Burgaud, from SEMAE:
“- How can farmers obtain seeds?
– Since the 1960s, farmers have had three ways of obtaining seed. The first, which has almost completely disappeared, […] is to make their own seeds of their own varieties. Here they are, they have fields with local varieties, which have been there since their ancestors, they keep part of the harvest and they reseed it. This is what existed until I would say in the 1950s as the main source of supply. The second source of supply, which developed from the 1950s, but particularly from the 1960s, is to buy seeds which are today called certified seeds, meaning whose quality is controlled by an official authority, and these certified seeds represent, all species combined, 90% of the market. And then there is a third possibility, which has never completely disappeared, it is what is called farm-saved seeds, meaning the farmers buy seeds of new varieties on the market, but afterwards, instead of buying back seeds, they keep part of their harvest. […]
In the early 1960s, when the French state created compulsory certification, it represented roughly 80% in cereal seeds. It decreased every year until the 1980s, when it was more than about 40% and then it increased again and it now represents about 50% [under the influence of the fall in the price of cereals straw (wheat, barley, etc.), which was linked to the end of guaranteed prices]. Today, if I summarize, the French farmer primarily sources certified seeds; second, in some species, such as wheat, barley, mainly straw cereals, also as farm seeds; and very marginally in seeds of varieties that belong to it.
– So it’s only in all that is straw cereals that farm seeds represent 50%? Anything that is seed of beets, rapeseed, green beans, etc. Is this marginal?
– Oh, it’s more than marginal, it’s 0%. The immensity of rapeseeds are hybrids, so if you reseed it, it is not at all the same thing you will have in your field […] 1. Making beet seed is not at all the same job… 2 If you like, the difference is simple. When you have a field of wheat, […] that wheat can make flour as well as seed. Depending on whether this wheat, you are going to crush it or put it in the ground, it will make flour or seed. But the starting grain is exactly the same. On the contrary, when you grow a beet, what you harvest is not beet kernels. If you want to make beet seeds, it’s a special job, it’s like carrot seeds. […]
– What is the point of buying these seeds rather than picking up those from last year? […]
– Basically, it really depends on how the manager manages his time, that of his employees and what he has to make them do. It’s just like people repainting their homes or not. As I told you, growing wheat seed is not very complicated, unlike many other species, as long as the original seed is the variety you want. Afterwards, if you are producing cleanly (which a lot of wheat growers do), i.e. your field is not full of barley, oats, weeds, which you have sown in the right when you reap at the right time and you have nice kernels, which germinate well, that makes you a good seed. Afterwards, the question is that despite everything you will have to sort it out a little, you will have to do it… and in general you have it cleaned by contract work companies, then you will eventually want to do them treat… So in the time, the farmers treated themselves by putting the seeds with a powder that they wet in a concrete mixer… well, they realized that it was still not ideal, so you will too contact a contract work provider… so at the end of the day, the calculation is simple: what do I gain, either financially or [in time] by making farm seeds rather than buying them. “François Burgaud (SEMAE)
We have therefore mainly mentioned this organizational dimension, but there is also an agronomic logic. For example, Igor adds a variety of wheat to their mix each year if they find one they “like”. His current mixture thus counted 7 varieties. Along the same lines, David Forge tells in a video (which I encourage you to watch a lot, he goes much deeper into what we have just touched on) his choice to integrate two new varieties, more resistant to diseases, to his wheat mixture and more broadly its seed practices. Note that he makes farm-saved rapeseed. This is just an overview of farming practices, which deserves a full-fledged book.
Igor, however, clarified that some cooperatives could impose certain conditions:
“Be careful with seeds… on beets, for example, there have always been restrictions at Tereos… not always the same but always the obligation to buy from Tereos a certain volume of seeds and the obligation to use only varieties approved by the coop. “
This point did not come out in any other interview. It is likely that the theoretical constraint is, in practice, so insignificant that no one thought it appropriate to tell me about it. We guess that
- the obligation to purchase seeds makes it possible to anticipate and have economies of scale and to coordinate with seed farmers and that
- the obligation on varieties makes it possible to better standardize harvests.
Tereos replied that “that cooperative members are completely free to purchase their phytosanitary products and seeds from the supplier of their choice”. [The brevity of the answer might be explained by the terror corporate have of having their words dishonestly exploited, which the studied journalist illustrates perfectly]
This point needs further study
Pressure from cooperatives?
You should have understood by now, the cooperatives cannot have had the role attributed to them by the journalist and “put pressure” on the farmers to sell them pesticides which would be counterproductive. This is so absurd that none of the farmers interviewed considered this possibility. When I asked the question, I was always answered as if I were asking if the technician-salesman was trying to sell more than necessary… What would the terrible pressures described by S. Foucart be like? We do not know.
Farmers forced to buy coated seeds from NNIs?
Finally, I was taken aback by this passage, attributed to a representative of the UNAF:
“But farmers have little choice: it has become very difficult for them to obtain seeds that are not coated with pesticides – the content of which they do not necessarily know.” (36)
It seemed absurd to me, but I was surprised to find, after sharing my dismay on Twitter, that an agronomist was telling me that was true. So, dark conspiracy or misunderstanding? In fact, it is quite right… and not at all. S. Foucart illustrates (again) here that one can misinform by saying something relatively true.
Indeed, all the farmers who spoke to me about coating mentioned a “basic treatment”. A farmer, whom I asked if he could buy without, told me that his cooperative had at least basic treatment. These are in fact low doses of pesticides intended to prevent the seed from rotting in the soil and, sometimes, to improve germination (“starter” fertilizer). It has nothing to do with NNIs in terms of toxicity. It even seems negligible. In fact, among the farmers I interviewed, many do not use NNIs or for some crops and not others. Coating, on the other hand, seems systematic.
S. Foucart suggests that the coatings in question are NNIs or comparable substances. However, there are many coatings: fungicides, non-NNI insecticides, fertilizers… Above all, their toxicity is much lower than the NNIs. As for the impossibility of finding anything else, that seems very doubtful to me. The instinctive response of some farmers was indeed that this was not possible. However, I also had other answers:
So the answer is yes. It is also obvious: nothing prevents a farmer from obtaining “organic” seeds from a reseller (however, note that AB seeds too can use seed treatments: Cerall, Copseed, white vinegar, and mustard seed powder). More broadly, it seems obvious to me that it can be found online. Second, what the UNAF said was not necessarily wrong: it is perhaps more difficult to find untreated seeds, simply because they are less interesting and therefore less in demand.
A quick search of agrileader.fr, an online shopping site for agricultural supplies, confirms this. As NNIs are now almost completely banned, I just went to see the beet seeds. There are 5 varieties available, only forage beets: Monro, Rivage, Brick, Splendide and Ribambelle. Only one of these can only be purchased as NNI asphalt (“Shore). The others can be T2 treated (= the “basic” coating we were talking about) or untreated (Ribambelle and Splendide). Technically, we can say that it is “more difficult” to find untreated varieties: this is the case for only 2 of the 5 varieties. Does this mean that it is “difficult”? No. This is all the more obvious if we do a simple search for “untreated seed” on google. I immediately found the site agriconomie.com, where the unprocessed offer is plentiful. So all you have to do is go to a website to find treated or untreated seeds.
Above all, it should also be remembered that farmers are free to grow their own seeds, which many do for straw cereals. Thus, not only is the journalist’s allegation misleading, but is also false (but defensible, since they used a relative “it has become very difficult to…”, hiding the fact that this very relative “difficulty” was largely the result of low demand).
Thus, there is some truth to the initial claim: untreated seed may be more difficult to find than treated seed. However, there is a total disconnect between this part and the meaning that the context gives it:
- most seed treatments are not NNIs and are of negligible environmental toxicity;
- it is still very easy to find untreated seeds.
By suggesting that farmers were forced to buy treated seeds from NNIs, S. Foucart misinforms.