The fanfare around France’s total ban of glyphosate, a controversial weed killer that may be carcinogenic, has descended into murky waters.
Already forbidden to individuals as of January 2019, President Emmanuel Macron had aimed to remove it from wider agricultural use by 2021. However, an amendment late last year that aimed to do just that, failed to pass.
Calls and emails this week to France’s agriculture and environment ministries failed to clarify the current situation. However, a research scientist and a national wine representative provided some answers. Both agreed that as of now, farmers, including vintners, can continue using glyphosate until a viable alternative is found.
Introduced in the 1980’s, glyphosate’s primary vineyard application was grass removal between vine rows and around rootstocks. These days, many are happy to leave the grass grow between rows. The rootstock area - where grass competes for water in hotter periods and increases frost damage risk in colder ones - is harder to deal with.
Asked about alternatives, agricultural scientist and director at France’s national research institute, INRA, Christian Huyghe, said two solutions are in the offing. One is a grass-removing machine or robot that will work carefully around vine trunks. The drawback here, said Huyghe, is that, as with all new machinery, the extra costs will be harder for smaller growers. It might also be difficult to use on very rocky or steeply sloped plots.
Another solution is to grow alternative plants, like mouse-ear hawkweed (Pilosella), around rootstocks. These types of plants prevent grass growth, without creating water competition or lowering soil temperatures – which is how the frost risk is increased.
As of now, Huyghe said the agriculture ministry and French Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, have asked France’s National Agency for Health and Environment (ANSES) to review all authorizations for commercial products containing glyphosate. Reviews such as this are based on the rule that any product withdrawal must be accompanied by alternatives that have no major economic or environmental impact.
“All the subtleties are embedded into the word ‘major’,” said Huyghe. INRA, he added, has been invited by ANSES to participate in the review and provide an economic assessment for all sectors.
On the wine side, Bernard Farges, president of the National Confederation of AOC Wine and Eau de Vie Producers (CNAOC) said three things. Firstly, that although wine producers can still use glyphosate, they would like to stop as soon they have a viable alternative. Secondly, that a 50% cut in wine sector usage is possible by 2021. But it will probably take five to eight years to get to 100% non-usage.
“Even with the tax there is on it, glyphosate is cheap and efficient,” Farges said. “But we all want to stop using it, the only problem is how quickly we can do that.”
Finally, Farges said that whether glyphosate is eventually deemed carcinogenic or not, the primary concern of winemakers is consumers. That means producers do not want to be defending doubtful chemicals, particularly given the growing demand for organic produce.
The wider context is also generally unfavourable given France’s drive to reduce overall pesticide usage under the government’s flagship EcoPhyto plan. Although seen as a failure so far, with pesticide use rising not falling, the plan has been updated. Its revised goals are a 25% reduction of all pesticides by 2020, and a 50% reduction by 2025, aided by a further €71 million ($81.17m), in addition an original €40 million.
European anti-pesticide lobby PAN, meanwhile, said that if France was truly committed to ending glyphosate usage, it had only to raise the existing tax and make billions of euro in EU payments to French farmers conditional on farmers not using it.
Practical as that sounds, given the ongoing Gilet Jaune movement, neither higher taxes nor cuts to EU payments seem likely any time soon.