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).
Let’s go back to the first “level” of S. Foucart’s story: farmers would be manipulated by sellers of phytosanitary products, who would push them so much for consumption that they would use NNIs when they did not need them.
After a little discussion with the farmers, we see 4 elements emerging that contradict this vision: farmers are entrepreneurs, who get training continously, who experiment and who often seek to use as little pesticides as possible.
First of all, farmers are entrepreneurs and agronomists, who need to limit their costs, the market having become very tight.
“When you have a very significant return potential, everything has to be on top, maximum. When you make cereals with low potential, you manage the margin differently. Since you don’t hope to do much, try to make sure it doesn’t cost you too much in terms of treatments. We could do 2 fungicide treatments, we could add 3 nitrogen instead of 2, but all that comes at a cost. And your cereal, even if you put it in optimal situations, you will not make 100 quintals anyway. […] If in the end when you harvest you gained 2-3 quintals, but you lost money for every quintal you produced, economically it is not profitable.
– And you don’t have the cooperative that would try to push you a little more? Co-ops have an incentive for you to have higher returns, right?
– No. We coop… we don’t have that problem. I don’t know how it goes elsewhere, but it’s true that I’m surprised when I listen to talk about “pressure from cooperatives”… no, we the coop, it behaves… even the private sector, eh, it will not necessarily seek to push to the maximum. Anyway today, the operator is a business owner. If the speaker is trying to make forced sales on products he doesn’t need, well, the speaker takes the door and someone else takes the place, eh. Today there is no one telling me what to put in the fields or how to do this or that. I am a business owner. When I need advice, I consult. […] Then afterwards I decide what I want to do and what I think is best for my animals, for my cereals, for my wallet… I am not under any pressure. […]
This is kind of what I often criticize. We are infantilized a lot. We have the feeling that the farmer is not an entrepreneur capable of making his decisions; that his decisions are necessarily dictated to him by Pierre, Paul, cooperation, Big Pharma or likes… Well, in fact today… […] [Farmers] They are guys who are capable of running a business and they are capable to make their decisions.” (David)
“Today the farmer will be happy with his technician as long as he [improves his income]. If there is a use of the product that is justified, that brings more yield, better quality or all the arguments that one could find… for me there is no problem, I use it. If the product doesn’t help me and costs me too much, I don’t see the point in double or triple doses.” (Etienne)
“Farmers are treated a bit like idiots. If I don’t need a phyto product, I’m not going to put it on, I don’t give a fuck. I’m not going to use 4 fungicides because the technician tells me to use 4 fungicides. In fact, our technicians tend to underestimate the risk.” (Ferdinand)
“Nah no, that’s completely wrong, we’re free to do whatever we want anyway. We are still our bosses at home. In my own system, I feel free anyway. No one forces me to put anything like treatment, pesticide or fungicide on my crops.” (Loic)
“There was a time when, indeed, I think there was a time when they [consultant salespeople] were pressured. I’m not saying that’s kind of what keeps them going, but still. Afterwards, I think the farmers who are not stupid. If you are going to see your wheat with your technician, that your leaves are super healthy, that there is no disease, that there is nothing and that your technician says to you “go ahead and treat”, wait you go. look a little weird you’re going to say to yourself “no but he really takes me for a gogole or what.” Now farmers have education levels equivalent to or even higher than those of technicians. There comes a time, maybe in my father’s or my grandfather’s time, when necessarily… It was not already the same time, when we asked them to produce, because we had to produce a lot, and, between quotes without restrictions, that today the products cost so much to use, that if your technician says to you “go ahead, do it” and that it is not justified, there comes a moment when even he loses in credibility and next year, if your production costs compared to your neighbor are 1.5 times higher, there comes a time to ask yourself questions. And today the technician, and I speak for mine, has more of an incentive to sell you decision-support tools than to load you with products.” (Nicolas)
This does not prevent them from sometimes not making the best decisions. For example, a farmer reminds me of a neighbor who followed what his consultant technician told him at the cooperative. After joining a group of farmers, he realized he could reduce the doses he was using drastically. They are not omniscient, agronomy is extremely complex.
Farmers are trained through multiple channels: chambers of agriculture, cooperative training, adult training centers, specialized magazines (Réussir), farmers’ groups (GEDA, CETA, BASE or Cle2sol association, etc.), Agroleague (an online community of farmers5) and even… social networks:
“Even I, a farmer, I discovered a lot of things via my fellow farmers on Twitter: productions that I had no idea, ways of producing that I did not know… Even farmers are far from knowing all the trades and all the ways of farming colleagues. […]
Last year for example, I had a plot where the chamber had set up a trial, where there were several different varieties and where at the end, we compared each variety to find out which had the best wheat yield. , the best straw yield, which had behaved better in the face of disease… This is the kind of thing that can be implemented. Then there are more technical training in the classroom on different subjects.” (David)
“How did you get trained in direct seeding?
– Agricool a lot, on the forum and then I went to the XX’s CUMA, which has direct sowing [material] and I started to sow… After I was also at an association, cle2sol […]. […] Afterwards, one cannot say that I am an expert in direct seeding. […] An enlightened amateur, yeah.” (Julien)
Likewise, David Forge presents his many sources of information: where he takes weather information, raw material prices, the plant health bulletin, newspapers (e.g. wikiagri.fr, agricultural France), Youtube, Twitter and “field exchanges” (in person)7. He also recounts training with his chamber of agriculture on soil conservation agriculture and his visit to an organic farm as part of a “tour of the plain” organized by his chamber of agriculture. In general, the exchange between farmers is a very important source of information. Bernard sums up: “All farmers are in continuous training.”
Many of the farmers interviewed spoke of their experiments: “I tried such and such a crop, it did not work”, “I tried to reduce the dose of glyphosate on a plot by 25%, it made 50 quintals. instead of 75”, and so on.
Sometimes the test is successful, as for Damien, interviewed for my book on agribashing, who tested squash, a kind of pumpkin he had discovered in New Zealand. He found in practice that it was best not to use pesticides:“You have years when there is a greater illness pressure. Especially in powdery mildew, this is the one that slows us down the most. Sometimes, powdery mildew arrives quite early in the growing cycle, which suddenly slows down, which penalizes us on the growth and maturity of the fruits. At the beginning, 4-5 years ago, we tried [to treat]. We had had a big attack on a few plots […] and whether we do it or not, there was no impact on the yields. “
Another told me about trying to get closer to soil conservation agriculture9 (SCA):
“Since the installation, it hasn’t changed much, because quite quickly I went to put some winter cover crops. That is to say between two crops, between wheat and corn for example, we plant a crop, which I am doing this afternoon, to cover the ground.
– So you do SCA?
– It’s not quite conservation agriculture. In conservation agriculture, we no longer work the soil at all. I almost tried, but I went back because I felt that on my farm it wasn’t working. […]
When you have livestock manure, it is complicated, because there is a lot of traffic on the soil. We also have small plots […] in small plots conservation agriculture is complicated too. In fact, we are rather without plowing, superficial work […] and we try to cover the soil as long as possible. It’s super technical [SCA] to follow. Even with two full times to follow that, it would be very difficult to get there. […]
We wanted to approach a colleague from SCA, always working very superficially. Unfortunately we noticed that our soils were compacted, and worse our corn, which is a fast crop, short cycle […], no longer had time to put its root system in place and, suddenly, was very sensitive to water stress.” (Christophe, Baumann 2021, p.25)
Igor implements many practices to limit its use of pesticides:
“I mix the varieties to limit the risk. There are agronomic practices that come before. It’s like the rest. Weed control: rotation helps. […] Insecticides are the same, when I say that I put oilseed rape away from where there were oilseed rape and sunflowers years before, it is to prevent the flea beetles from developing there. […] The fungicides are the same. We have plenty of reasoning. The product is the last step, is when all other reasoning doesn’t work. “
Marion has managed to dispense with fungicides for her cereals by combining different species: wheat, barley, triticales… which she can then feed to her cattle.
It emerges from all my interviews that farmers treat as little as possible and observe a lot (depending on their constraints). This is obviously necessary in order to learn (to know what is working and what is not), but also to see infestations or the development of diseases coming and react quickly. Many of the problems they face have exponential growth: weeds, fungi, insects… Reacting quickly is important.
This is clearly illustrated by Nicolas:
“Frankly, I don’t treat because it makes me happy, it costs me an arm and a leg so if I can avoid putting them on, I avoid putting them on. But you have products where you know that, if you don’t put them on, you will either catch up or you will catch up and you will also take a header. This is called peasant common sense. It’s not a pleasure to put them on, but you know […] it’s insurance. […]
The less I use the sprayer, the happier I am. The basic program on cereals for example, I will do the weeding, then, depending on the diseases, depending on the year, I do fungicides, regulators. Like this year, for example, we had a rather cold and dry month of March-April, so I didn’t do a growth regulator. Since it was cold and dry, I didn’t do the [first] fungicide, because there was no disease, but I did the second. However, June was not too rainy, so I didn’t do the third. So on my wheat this year, I only did a weeding, a catch-up on thistles and a fungicide.” (Nicolas)
This is not a recent trend:
“We were already questioned about phytosanitary products. And that’s where I heard for the first time, in 1980, […] talk about sustainable agriculture. […] But it is true that I was already in this spirit of reducing inputs. Why add more when necessary? Protecting yourself all the time is good, but it comes at a cost and it is not necessarily good for the user and for the consumer. This evolution I had already had, for more than 40 years [now]. And when I took over the family farm, I saw that my father was doing the same, that he reduced between the recommendations that could be made to him, either by the traders or the cooperatives, he tried to systematically reduce the quantities.” (Bernard)
You yourselves can see regularly that farmers (or para-farmers) resent this myth and the contempt it carries. For example, they have recently been very reactive to an article calling for machine-less agriculture, and then to the ensuing discussion with the InPACT association (@InPACTnational):
1Groupes d’Étude et de Développement Agricoles.
2Centre d’études techniques agricoles. https://www.cetadefrance.fr/qui-sommes-nous/histoire-des-ceta
5La prévalence de ce mode de formation résulte probablement d’un biais de sélection
9Flagship practice of agroecology, consisting in short in not tilling the soil and using “cover crops” (crops intended to be destroyed) to fertilize the soil and protect it from erosion.