Sylvie Brunel’s Column

"A Poor Example"

It was one of the first countries in the world that banned pesticides and went fully organic. Then, faced with the ensuing food shortages, the collapse of the country’s main export commodity (tea), and the abandonment of farmland (turned fallow), the Sri-Lankan government had to return to a more realistic approach and lift the bans urgently.

Is Europe likely to follow the same path? Its Green Deal aims at reducing farmland by 10 percent, shifting a quarter of it to organic agriculture, and cutting the use of crop protection and fertilizer products by half. In short: produce less, more expensively. As the sudden price spike generates (against the Covid background) food insecurity and social unrest throughout the world, are we not about to shoot ourselves in the foot? “But we produce too much”, is what they often tell you. Really? One hundred and fifty countries in the world import their food. Few of them export, and one of them is France. But the situation deteriorates. Fruit, vegetables, poultry – are commodities that are increasingly coming from abroad, in Europe. Even maize, of which Europe has become the world’s first importer! We have never needed this miraculous plant as much as now, both for food and for fossil fuel replacement – a plant of whose seeds we are the world’s top exporter.

Seen as a crop that uses too much water – the “maize soldier”, as Erik Orsenna calls it – this plant is however able to capture a record amount of carbon, providing an unequalled level of biomass – for the green chemistry, for energy, for insulation, and, of course, for food production. Only a quarter of France’s maize area is irrigated – and the country is far from lacking in water: it uses less than 3 percent of its rainfall water. We, [the French,] are the world’s first fans of private pools, yet we give ourselves the right to forbid rural people from storing it, and go as far as destroying water reservoirs in the Deux-Sèvres department. And yet such reservoirs are needed in order to keep natural habitats alive, in view of the climate change.


Not to mention anyone who dares taking out their spraying machine: “bee killer”; “poisoner” – the invectives will be hurled right away at the unfortunate producers, who do nothing but feed us by protecting us from diseases of which we have forgotten, thanks to them. Remember ergotism, depicted by Hieronymus Bosch, and mildew, responsible for the Great Irish Famine? They are coming back! The box-tree moth ravages topiaries, just as the ash dieback does in the Green Venice of the Poitevin Marsh. How oblivious can we be? In the underdeveloped countries, pests cut harvests by half, as do swarms of voracious crickets or insidious mycotoxins. Here, we see the ergot of cereals, the brown marmorated sting bug, or the formidable Datura – as violent as it is seducing. But we should not use treatments any more! Nor use genetic genius to help nature defend itself. And all that, while we have reached our third ARN vaccine dose, for our health!

All of that reflects the low point that a whole industry has reached, because it has been discouraged by our ungratefulness. Suicide cases are numerous in the farming world, which feels that the more it does, the more it is required of it, while we import everything, from everywhere – but at low prices.

In France, we however have the incredible chance of a family-based, responsible type of agriculture – the most sustainable in the world! And it has room for everything: organic, short circuit, direct selling, rural shops and so on… as well as highly-productive farms that feed both cities that do not produce locally more than 2 percent of what they consume, and countries that are structurally deficient. Let us be realistic: nine tenths of what we eat come from the so-called conventional agriculture (a misleading term, since it renews and “greenifies” itself permanently, hand in hand with organic agriculture) and is bought at supermarkets.

Let us adjoin production styles instead of placing them in opposition; let us integrate our producers into regional food projects that make room for everyone; let us develop with them water reservoirs that help build the most beautiful landscapes! Without our farmers, we will not be able to save anything – whether it is our climate, our landscapes, or our health.

In order to have living natural regions, farmers need to be respected. Let us stop giving them nature lessons all the time and buying right before their eyes products that we do not want to see grown in our country because they do not observe social rights, the environment or animal welfare – aspects which we are right to be concerned about…, provided that we remain sane.

Sylvie Brunel, Writer and geographer

Published on Nov. 27th, 2021 – SUD-OUEST – ECO – AGRICULTURE

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