EU farmers’ network: Pesticides can be reduced without impacting profits

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It is possible to reduce pesticide use with Integrated Pest Management (IPM) methods while ensuring farms remain economically profitable, a network of European farmers told MEPs in the European Parliament’s agriculture committee.

Read the original French article here.

With discussions on the proposal to see the use and risk of pesticides halved by 2030 are now in full swing, representatives from EU-wide farm network IPMWORKS, which specialises in demonstrating and promoting cost-effective IPM strategies, sought to abate EU lawmakers’ fears in a public hearing on Tuesday (23 May).

Funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, this project brings together 22 groups of around ten farmers in 16 EU countries to explore the large-scale rollout of IPM.

IPM is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on managing pests through a combination of techniques applied in order of hierarchy to minimise the use of chemical plant protection products. Unlike organic farming, pesticides are not banned in IPM, but must remain a last resort.

While IPM is enshrined in the EU’s 2009 Directive on the sale of plant protection products, and has even been, at least theoretically, compulsory since 2014, its uptake remains slow and the concept too vague, according to many MEPs.

There are also recurrent fears about how to balance reducing pesticide use with economic viability – an issue the project has been exploring in depth.

“For the past two years, we have been collecting data on farms to demonstrate that it is possible to do without pesticides, while maintaining economic activity,” IPMWORKS coordinator Nicolas Munier-Jolain, who is also a researcher at INRAE, France’s Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, told EURACTIV.

To train its groups of farmers, IPMWORKS relied on existing networks in certain countries, such as DEPHY, which brings together more than 2,000 French farmers, as well as with DIPS in Germany, GROEN in the Netherlands, LEAF in the UK and PESTIRED in Switzerland.

From 2020 to 2022, these farmers gave IPMWORKS data on their practices and methods.

At the presentation before EU lawmakers on 23 May, Portuguese vegetable grower Bruno Neves presented his results after several years of IPM.

By investing in water control and biological pest control methods using wasps and bumblebees, he has been able to reduce his use of pesticides by 75%.

“We have to concentrate on living ecosystems, try to understand them, to find out how they can help us,” stresses the farmer, insisting on the need for a strong knowledge and experience of the ‘dynamic’ nature of production.

The same applies further north, in Belgium, near Bruges.

Mathias Jonckheere, a greenhouse strawberry grower, has managed to reduce the use of pesticides by 95% and fungicides by 50% in the space of five years by combining disease-resistant varieties, fine temperature control in greenhouses and natural predators.

“Those who use the least pesticides acknowledge that they are just as profitable, and that they have better disease control than their conventional neighbours”, said IPMWORKS’s Munier-Jolain, based on farmer testimonials received since 2020.

Despite these impressive results, the farmers also noted the difficulties.

“We have to farm sustainably, while meeting the demands of the market,” warned Neves, who continues to supply supermarkets.

“If a predator isn’t effective, we try something else. You have to adapt all the time. And obviously, some years are more difficult than others,” Jonckheere, who looks after several hectares of strawberries, added.

According to Munier-Jolain, reducing treatments to such an extent remains a challenge, as it requires a major overhaul of crops and pest management.

But IPM methods are still not widely used in Europe, as showcased by pesticide consumption struggling to fall in the European Union.

After a sharp decline in 2019, the sale of plant protection products in France rebounded by 23% in 2020.

“Chemical products are still too cheap. Spraying with a chemical product costs EUR15 per hectare, whereas with IPM the costs soar,” German Green MEP Martin H?usling said, calling for IPM to be “imposed” on farmers.

Another recurring remark concerns the influence of agricultural advisers linked to agrochemical firms, who impose commercial pressures and hinder the spread of information on these little-known practices.

“We need minimum requirements, as we have for organic farming, for IPM practices and their products. Consumers also need to be able to make sense of them,” stressed Italian MEP Herbert Dorfmann (EPP).

The IPMWORKS project is currently launching a new survey that will provide precise results on the reduction in pesticide consumption on each of the farms in the network based on tried and tested indicators. The results are expected in early 2024.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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