Glyphosate: alternatives exist, but major obstacles remain...
- François-Xavier Branthôme
- Read in french
Germany could introduce a nationwide ban
On 27 November, the countries of the European Union narrowly passed a vote in favor of renewing glyphosate for the next five years.
At the request of the French government, the INRA (National institute for agronomic research) prepared a report on alternatives for glyphosate. This report presents a number of possible options that have already been tested on some farms, but does not state whether they could be generalized in the near future. It also provides a relevant overview of problems and issues that will affect countries where the herbicide is banned.
In 2016, according to the INRA, French agriculture consumed 9100 tonnes of this herbicide, which presents "the double property of being total (all plants share the blocked mechanism and are therefore sensitive to varying degrees) and systemic (it travels through the tissue in order to reach the root system). (...) Due to its generalized usage, its metabolites can also be found in water resources and in the soil and, very rarely, in agricultural produce."
Possible alternatives, alone or combined, including pesticides...
If glyphosate is banned, in order to maintain their level of revenue and yields, growers will need to use other tools, either alone or combined: mechanical weeding and shallow tillage, plowing, use of farm equipment that chops up plant matter (in order to avoid requiring total chemical destruction), living mulch cultivation... The INRA report does not exclude the temporary use of other weed-killers: "the targeted use of other registered herbicides (but which could potentially have tox/ecotox characteristics even more undesirable than glyphosate), could be required during a transition period in order to treat perennial weeds that resist previously mentioned options." These levers have already been tested within a specialized network (Dephy Ecophyto) and "are therefore possibilities, and even economically viable, when they are considered in the context of coupled interventions in order to limit increased costs, and as part of an approach involving the cultivation system as a whole," according to the Institute.
...but "major obstacles" remain, possibly definitive barriers
However, "major obstacles" remain, affecting the "economic impact and the duration of work carried out, changes to available equipment, to motorization and automatic processes, and the methods of installation of perennial crops. Thinking through the transition leading to the end of glyphosate therefore requires a timescale that takes account of the implementation of these alternative techniques," states the INRA, while refraining from commenting on the three-year ban announced by President Macron.
According to the report, a ban on glyphosate would create "unsolvable situations where destruction by hand would be the only answer for the time-being. This is the case for conservation agriculture, but also for crops intended for specific markets with major technical constraints (seed production, processing vegetables grown in open fields), as well as for several niche productions." The report adds that the economic consequences of the necessary cost increase "would be particularly aggravated in view of the limited diversification of agricultural crops and the fact that the relevant industry has to deal with highly competitive markets within the European Union."
An increase in robotics, precision agriculture, bio-control...
In order to facilitate adaptation, the INRA recommends "profound changes" and notably advises an increase in the use of robotics, "particularly in the area of vegetable growing", more mechanical weeding equipment (which will require appropriate legislation), more precision agriculture and field cartography in order to better target chemical and mechanical operations... But the Institute also mentions "innovative methods of chemical or alternative weed control, specifically aimed at a given number of species that present a concern in terms of public health or that constitute major obstacles to current environmentally respectful cropping systems, including for growers working in the field of organic agriculture." The Institute is counting on future research in order to create new options like bio-control.
A number of these shifts are compatible with a reduction in herbicide dependency, beyond glyphosate itself, according to the INRA. The Institute expects the "transition to the disappearance of glyphosate to also be facilitated by a shift in consumer demand and a harmonization of the approaches of all European countries in order to limit distortions to competition."
Having been consulted on 2 November, the INRA only had one month to carry out its analysis based on "rapidly available data (Dephy Ecophyto network, national and international reports, scientific and technical publications) and the consultation of experts from the INRA, the CIRAD (center for international cooperation in agronomic research and development) and the IRSTEA (national institute for scientific and technological research into the environment and agriculture), as well as agricultural technical institutions, chambers of agriculture and agricultural professional organizations."
President Macron has promised to ban glyphosate in France "as soon as alternatives have been found, and at the latest within three years."
Germany could introduce national glyphosate ban
In Germany, regulators have recently concluded the country could legally introduce a national ban of the controversial weed killer glyphosate, despite the European Union's decision to authorize its use for a further five years.
The Bundestag's European department determined that a national ban of glyphosate would be legal because, while the EU is responsible for the authorization of the active substances contained in pesticides and weed-killers, Member States are responsible for the authorization of the products themselves.
Last month, the appeals committee of EU governments backed a European Commission proposal to renew glyphosate's license for a further five years. Eighteen member states voted in favor of the move, representing a qualified majority of 65.71 % of the EU population – just over the 65% threshold required. Germany swung the decision, and finally reversed its position and voted in favor of the license. According to reports, the decision was taken without Germany's Social Democrat Environment Minister’s agreement and in spite of her opposition.
German Social Democrats and Greens are pushing for a full national ban. Harald Ebner, the Green's glyphosate expert, stressed that “the importance of glyphosate withdrawal is illustrated by new studies that suggest that glyphosate not only threatens biodiversity and is likely to be carcinogenic, but also increases the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's disease and provides resistance to antibiotics."
German Farmers' Association BDV supports the continued use of glyphosate. The BDV suggested that German and European farmers use the weed killer "responsibly" and with "proven expertise". The organization also stressed that the plant protection product allows soil conservation and "improves the C02 balance in agriculture".
Sources: INRA, UsineNouvelle, FoodNavigator
Some complementary data (in French)