“Udo not bomb”, headlined the French press, unanimously, in front of the recent decision of the European Court of Justice, deeming illegal the derogations granted by the Member States to certain pesticides which are nevertheless prohibited. Entry by the Board of state Belgium, itself questioned by anti-pesticide NGOs contesting the derogations granted by Brussels to several neonicotinoid substances to treat the seeds of certain crops, the European Court has ruled: these derogations are illegal, including in the case of exceptional circumstances jeopardizing a sector – in the case of the Francethat of sugar beet.
Close the ban… Only four days after this decision, France, on January 23, threw in the towel through the voice of its Minister of Agriculture Marc Fesneau: “I have no intention of strolling the farmers who are worried” , declared the Minister during a press briefing, announcing that the government would not offer a third year waiver for the coating of beet seeds. An explosion for French planters, whose harvest had collapsed in 2020, ravaged up to 70% by an epidemic of jaundice brought by aphids, against which they had no right to fight. French sugar production had collapsed by half.
A neonicotinoid authorized in Europe… until 2033
But has France really been forced to “fold in the face of Brussels”, as the executive, extremely embarrassed, hints in a half-word? On examination of the facts, no. In reality, by transposing the European rules, France has put itself in a dead end, and today finds itself in this grotesque situation: while all the countries of the world, including its neighbors, will be able to spray in 2023 a neonicotinoid on their beet crops, she will be the only one to find herself without the slightest alternative. “This is a great victory for environmentalists! greeted the NGO Générations Futures.
A great victory, above all, for the commercial competitors of the French sector, France still being the leading European sugar producer. “Our competitors will be able to spray acetamiprid, a neonicotinoid that has not been banned by theEuropeand whose use has even been extended until 2033 sums up Franck Sander. “France will simply open its checkbook to compensate farmers. I tell you frankly: I’m furious, ”whistle the president of the General Confederation of beet growers (CGB).
To understand how France plunged into this trap, we must go back a few years.
Overtranspositions: when France is overzealous
suspected of playing a role in the decline noted in Europe of bee colonies, in the same way as varroa mites (the leading cause of death in hives) or the Asian hornet, insecticides from the neonicotinoid family, which attack the nervous system of insects, have been the subject for more than twenty years of an intense opposition campaign by environmental NGOs. From the beginning of the 2000s, a first substance of this family, imidacloprid, was gradually banned on sunflower crops, then corn, its harmfulness to bees coming to forage on flowers being proven. Other preparations (thiamethoxam and clothianidin) are studied, temporarily suspended, then reauthorised…
Finally, in 2013, the European Commission decided to suspended for two years three neonicotinoid insecticides, considering that a risk for bees cannot “be excluded”, except for certain categories of crops, such as beets: the plant does not attract bees, since it is harvested well before the appearance of flowers. But France, then, decided to go further: convinced by the militants, the Minister of Ecology at the time, Ségolène Royal, and her Secretary of State for Biodiversity, Barbara Pompili, voted in 2015 a law “to reclaim biodiversity, nature and landscapes”which prohibits all substances of the neonicotinoid family then used in France, without consideration for their respective toxicities.
The ban takes effect in 2018, with the possibility of waiving the ban under certain circumstances, until 2020. In all, five substances are definitely prohibited (but they remain authorized for pet flea collars, at very high concentrations). The European Parliament, on the other hand, will only ban three in 2018only on outdoor crops, then a fourth… But acetamiprid, a neonicotinoid considered much less toxic by contact than clothianidin, for example, remains authorized, and its approval will even be extended in Europe until… 2033 !
2020: the shock of the beet yellows virus
In 2020, as aphids invade French crops and jaundice destroys cropsthe Minister of Agriculture Julien Denormandie gets a waiver the use of neonicotinoids for beet growers alone for a period of three years, it being up to scientists to find alternatives to fight against pests. The law provides for a strict framework: first, the substance can only be used as a coating for seeds, which makes it possible to reduce its distribution in the environment. Then, since neonicotinoids persist in the soil for about fifteen months, farmers are prohibited from planting a flowering crop in the following two years. “Basically, you can only plant wheat, barley or oats,” explains Christophe Boizard, who farms 200 hectares, including 35 of beets, in the Somme.
At the same time, a “beet monitoring council”, which brings together parliamentarians, beet growers, researchers and environmental organizations, was created to find alternatives. “For 2023, scientists believe that there is a risk of aphids being present from 1er May, and the jaundice virus remained very present. We therefore thought we would give a favorable opinion on a new derogation, ”explains its president, the senator of the Union Centriste group Pierre Louault. As for the alternatives… “In three years, we are forced to realize that it was mission impossible. »
Neonicotinoids still used in Europe
Rue de Varenne, the Minister of Agriculture fulminates. “We decided in 2016, without any known alternative or research program, to ban everything! Today, we can measure the scope”, squeals with the Point Marc Fesneauwhich reminds us that the other European countries will have the possibility of using the cursed insecticide in foliar use, without any environmental association being moved by it.
L’Germany made this choice three years ago. While seed coating consists of preventive protection of crops, Berlin waits for aphid attacks to treat, by spraying acetamiprid on the plans. A treatment in the open air, “much more dangerous for the bees, since the wind can disperse the molecule on the surrounding flowers”, insists Pierre Louault. Following the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), most sugar beet producing countries will have this possibility, creating a major distortion of competition with French producers.
No alternatives yet
In addition to Great Britain, which is no longer subject to the CJEU since Brexit and which has just authorized, after “a rigorous scientific evaluation”, the use for 2023 of a banned neonicotinoid, most of the countries producing beet (from Germany to Poland, via Spain, the Czech Republic, Finland, etc.) will resort to spraying directly on the plants. “Acetamitride is effective for eight days, and then you have to start again,” says Franck Sander. In 2020, France thought of reconsidering the ban on this substance authorized everywhere, but was prevented from doing so, according to the ministry, “because of the principle of non-regression of environmental law”. Nevertheless…
The alternatives, which supporters of the banning of this family of insecticides have been promising since 2018, still do not exist. “We made an error in analysis, confided to the Pointin 2020, a ministerial adviser. Before neonicotinoids were banned, ANSES had identified an insecticide, Karate-K, which could have the same use against aphids. But it turned out that the aphids were resistant to it, and that it also destroyed all the other insects! “Since then, other molecules have been approved in a hurry, without much result. “We are progressing a lot on the knowledge of the virus, and even on the alternatives, but it is a question of time”, recognizes Fabienne Maupas, scientific director at the Technical Institute of beetroot (ITB.) “Two biocontrol companies are putting develop solutions based on pheromones or odors that will repel aphids. But the concept hasn’t been tested in the real world yet, and nothing is licensed,” she says. “At the genetic level, all the seed companies have found sources of tolerance, which they are in the process of integrating into their material. But that won’t happen overnight. » Especially since Europe prohibits new plant biotechnologieswhich she still considers to be GMOs, all crossings must be done by hand… “We won’t be calm before 2026, at best”, anticipates Fabienne Maupas.
The “chequebook” solution
Christophe Boizard, he will plant beets all the same, because he has no choice: a contract binds him for five years to the factory which transforms his production. “At the same time as the beet, I will sow oats, a grass which disturbs the aphid and slows down its passage from plant to plant,” he says. “The problem is that at a certain stage, the grass must be destroyed to prevent it from competing with the beet, and to do this use a herbicide…” No machine is capable of weeding at ground level , under the leaf, which is why organic beet cultivation never developed, occupying barely 1,000 hectares, out of a total of 400,000 in France.
The Ministry of Agriculture has pledged to fully compensate farmers for any crop losses. But the solutions to preserve the sector are still being studied: because it is waterlogged, transporting beet to its processing site is not profitable beyond 35 km, nor below a certain volume. “The factory must operate for a minimum of 90 days. If the farmers, tomorrow, have falling yields or stop producing beets, we can all close, ”confides, anguished, the owner of one of the 21 sugar factories in the country.
Sugar, whose consumption in France has not increased and has remained perfectly stable for more than 50 years, will then be imported. And if France can block the import, she thinks, of cultures using neonicotinoids in seed coating, in the terms mentioned by the CJEU, she will not be able to oppose the rest. Sugar, tomorrow, could therefore arrive from Germany, Spain, Poland, even Belgium… Or from the giant sugar cane fields of Brazil or Thailand, where neonicotinoids are used in quantities. “Where is the logic, where is the benefit for the environment? asks Franck Sander. “Unemployed people no longer count, and the economy is giving way to environmental concerns,” says someone close to the sector. “We have clearly entered a decreasing pattern. »