Anyone who travels by train or car from Paris towards the Loire valley or Brittany will pass though the region of the Beauce, thousands and thousands of acres of flat, arable land that stretches for miles and could be described as France’s breadbasket. The farmers of wheat and other cereals who are lucky enough to have land in this area are among the wealthiest of their profession. A lot of their harvest is exported and contributes positively to France’s trade and current account balances. These are definitely not the French farmers who sometimes use their tractors to disrupt traffic on major roads or dump tons of potatoes or manure in front of government buildings. One of the reasons for their success is the high yields enabled by the spraying of powerful herbicides and pesticides on their crops. The same is true for sugar beet farmers and, to a lesser extent, many others.
It has been known for some time that residues of these chemicals can be found in foodstuffs and urine samples. Environmental activists have long denounced their widespread use and beekeepers consider neonicotinoid pesticides in particular responsible for abnormally high bee mortality in recent years. Public debate has now crystallised around glyphosate, the chemical compound used in Monsanto’s famous herbicide, Roundup. As glyphosate’s licence for use throughout the European Union is due for renewal by December 15 of this year, the debate has become increasingly heated and no fewer than eight expert and ministerial meetings in Brussels have been unable to attain the necessary majority for renewal. The European Commission’s initial proposal was to renew the licence for ten years, reduced to five after an outcry from the European Parliament. France, through its Minister for Ecological Transition (and telenvironmentalist in a previous life) Nicolas Hulot, has refused to concede more than three years and is thought to favour the gradual phasing out of the product altogether rather than renewing the licence and facing the same battle three years hence.
Somewhat concealed under the manoeuvrings of the Commission, clearly influenced by Monsanto’s lobbying, the European Parliament which has banned the company’s representatives from entering its premises and environmentalists of all persuasions, the underlying issue is the future shape of the European Union’s model of agriculture. And as France is one of the EU’s largest countries and a major producer and exporter of agricultural produce, its stance will have a big impact. An additional twist to the plot is that the German chemical concern, Bayer, launched a takeover bid for Monsanto in September 2016, so the position of Germany, still embroiled in coalition negotiations to form the next government, is likely to tip the balance one way or the other.
Like most people, I have no way of knowing what claims and counterclaims about glyphosate are accurate. A specialist body of the World Health Organisation has concluded from its studies that it is carcinogenic for humans. Other studies claim that it is not, although doubts have been cast on their design and conclusions. Common sense however would I think conclude that spraying large quantities of strong chemicals on crops of all kinds, even if they are not a direct cause of cancer, is not exactly conducive to good health. On holiday in Alsace a few years ago, I remember walking though some vineyards, seeing a large tank of liquid that was undoubtedly being sprayed on the vines and coming away with my eyes stinging so badly, that I had to go straight to the nearest pharmacy and ask for something to relieve the pain. The pharmacist made no comment on the reasons I gave for seeking his help, but with the help of an over-the-counter ocular formula my eyes were back to normal by the end of the evening. I couldn’t help wondering though whether the chemical sprayed on the vines, whatever it was, would not leave a residue in the grapes and the wine that would be made from them. Not too many months later, my ex-wife’s basset hound, a middle-aged dog normally in good health, died in obvious pain a few days after lapping from what looked like a puddle of rainwater at the edge of a cultivated field. The vet was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to say what he had died of, but my suspicion is that he had slurped up some nasty and poisonous chemical, washed off the crops by rain.
All in all, I can’t help feeling that environmental activists should be taken seriously when they call for a complete overhaul of France’s agricultural model. There are signs that farmers are starting to listen, under pressure mainly from consumers who are increasingly keen to buy organic produce (See: “Food glorious food”- September 18th). In one of those schizophrenic episodes to which the EU authorities are prone, European subsidies are earmarked for farmers who convert to organic farming methods although, for the time being, reports suggest that they are insufficient in France and being paid out very slowly by the French government. Personally I look forward to being able to eat bread and drink wine that is certified free of chemical residues – and too bad for wine growers in Alsace or wheat farmers in the Beauce. They are likely to protest loudly, lobby hard and do their best to procrastinate but I’m confident they won’t go out of business!