France has unveiled its €30 million ‘research priority programme’ to continue its drive towards reduced pesticide use. Called ‘Cultiver et Protéger Autrement’ (cultivating and protecting differently), the programme will focus on using agroecology, biocontrol and preventive measures to deliver high-performance, sustainable agriculture.
Led by ENDURE partner INRA, and involving ENDURE’s other French partners CIRAD and ACTA, the programme continues the work outlined in the country’s Ecophyto plans and is designed to create real innovations and changes in practices over the coming decade or so.
The thinking behind the programme is based on three principles: prevention (prophylaxis), making better use of agroecology and rethinking value chains. In the programme’s summary report, revealed at February’s Paris International Agricultural Show, the authors note that crop protection as currently practiced in France and worldwide relies heavily on curative approaches, using effective crop protection products. However, the efficacy of these products means that pest pressure is not taken into account. This approach needs to be reversed, says the report, with priority instead given to the use of adapted prophylactic methods.
It notes that one of agroecology’s basic principles is to seek increased functional biodiversity to enhance biological regulation and ecosystem services. This increase, it adds, must be considered at different spatial scales (plant, field, cropping system and landscape) and over different time scales. Agroecology, it says, makes it possible not simply to search for alternatives to pesticides but to employ levers which increase biological regulation and limit the presence of pests.
With a focus on increased diversification in farming systems, the programme recognises that a rethinking of current value chains will be required, including new processing and marketing channels. The promotion of pesticide and residue-free production will require recognition among consumers of the characteristics of these products so will involve downstream stakeholders in agri-food chains. And upstream stakeholders will have a role to play too, particularly biocontrol and agricultural equipment companies. An evolution in public policies will also be essential to enable these changes.
The programme has identified two courses of action: calls for projects on various themes and in different waves, focused on the ‘fronts of science’ and structuring tools, and events for the scientific community and agricultural sector.
On the ‘fronts of science’, the programme has identified various prophylactic principles that can already be used. These can be agronomic (diversifying rotations, using resistant and competitive varieties, intercropping, managing agroecological infrastructure to boost beneficials etc.) and through biocontrol (macroorganisms, microorganisms, chemical mediators such as pheromones, and natural substances).
However, says the report, these major principles for prophylaxis and strengthening biological regulation are understood for only a small number of species and cropping systems, and the mechanisms underlying them are not well enough understood to employ them more widely. One of the programme’s first objectives will therefore be to strengthen knowledge in areas insufficiently addressed in current research through calls for projects on:
Cover crops with high functional diversity, microbiome and plant resistance for pesticide-free cultivation systems
Three objectives have been set, with the desire to have strong interactions between them: understanding plant/plant interactions to develop cover crops with high functional diversity; studying relationships within the microbiome in order to understand and use the effects of microorganisms on pest regulation; identifying and exploiting new sources of plant resistance taking into account these interactions.
Design of innovative cropping systems, deployment of biocontrol and socio-economic levers for transition
Three objectives have been set. The first concerns the conditions for the expression of the positive effects of a diversity of agronomic species in the field, technical practices to maximise the productive and environmental benefits of the effects of interactions, and the development of adapted agricultural equipment. The second addresses pest regulation using macro and microorganisms, natural substances, beneficials and stimulating plant defences, and concerns methods and collective organisation at the field or territorial scale to prevent the emergence, development or dispersal of pest populations. The third addresses the socio-economic conditions of transition: advice and access to actionable knowledge, on-farm organisation of work, organisation of downstream production chains, consumer behaviour and public policies.
To ensure the programme’s impact and to provide France’s scientific community with resources in terms of infrastructure, ‘structuring tools’ for research and applied research are being targeted.
Enhanced epidemiological surveillance systems to develop prophylaxis
The report explains that this is based on taking into account the cycle of weeds, pests and diseases, identifying the steps at which it is necessary to act in order to maintain population trajectories within acceptable ranges. This will involve more widespread and automation of observation methods and biological monitoring in real time. This will involve a new epidemio-surveillance system using new-generation networked sensors capable of real-time reporting; metrics and modelling to cover changes in risk trajectories over the entire growing season; biostatistical methods to deal with the mass and diversity of information produced by sensor networks, linking them to climate data and crop growth models; and lastly, information networks for the deployment of instrument sites and the sharing of information between actors.
Research in combination with the ‘0 pesticides’ experimental and innovation systems
The programme will work with and exploit the scientific results from the ‘0 pesticides’ local experimental initiatives, which are driven by actors in the field, and in the Ecophyto Plan’s DEPHY experimental network.
Chemical exposome infrastructure
The report notes that pesticide use has led over time to the accumulation of products and their derivatives in different environmental compartments. The characterisation of the exposome, it says, requires the combination of various exposure assessment methodologies, including biological sample analyses, measuring the environment of each individual, using existing cohorts, environmental observatories, databases, sample banks and potentially connected sensors. It requires new approaches, important methodological developments and efficient infrastructure, which will need to be developed.
As part of the programme, a foresight study is to be conducted. Addressing ‘European agriculture without pesticides’, scenarios will be developed to feed a modelling exercise looking towards the year 2050. This will build on the hypotheses and expected results of the programme and make it possible to investigate trajectories for the transformation of European agriculture.