France launches public consultation on ‘pesticides-free zones’

"If we had to remove 150 metres of the cultivated agricultural area from every French field, between 20% and 30% of that area would be 'amputated'. It would be a tragedy, and it would amputate agricultural production," said Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume. [EPA/PATRICK PLEUL]

France’s government has launched a public consultation about its measure related to creating relatively narrow pesticide-free zones around houses, which civil society sees as insufficient. EURACTIV’s partner le Journal de l’environnement reports.

With France’s three ministries (agriculture, ecological and solidarity transition, and health) announcing the launch of a public consultation on Saturday (7 September), the government is getting ever closer to setting up so-called ‘pesticide-free zones’ around houses.

This announcement comes although civil society has long shown opposition to such measures.

From 5 to 10 metres

The government explained that “the most dangerous substances can be used beyond a minimum ten-metre perimeter.” Its assessment is based on a report published by France’s health and food safety agency, Anses.

For other products, spraying will be allowed within “a minimum ten-metre radius for high crops (viticulture, arboriculture) and a minimum of five metres for low crops (cereals).”

This protection measure, a first for local French residents, is the subject of a decree, for which a three-week public consultation was launched on Monday (9 September). The decree is expected to come in force on 1 January 2020.

The executive order comes after the decree of 4 May 2017 on the conditions for pesticide application, which was annulled on 26 June. This was after the government’s Council of State held that it did not provide sufficient protection for residents.

For those opposing pesticide use, these perimeters are insufficient. They are far below the 150-metre limit set by the decree published in May by the mayor of Langouët (Ille-et-Vilaine), Daniel Cueff. Since then, the text has been emulated about thirty times across the country. Supported by the associations, several of these municipal decrees are already being challenged by the prefectures concerned.

These distances of five to 10 metres are also much shorter than those proposed by the agriculture ministry’s department on food (DGAL). A 2016 order regarding residences for vulnerable persons (health establishments, schools) mentioned perimeters of fifty metres for arboriculture, twenty metres for viticulture and five metres for low crops.

France struggling to phase out pesticides

France has promised to phase out glyphosate at a quicker rate than the EU. However, successive “Ecophyto plans” have not produced any results and meanwhile, the use of phytosanitary products continues to grow. EURACTIV France reports.

Data from the 1980s

Another criticism is the obsolete nature of the methods used to calculate these safety distances. As Anses noted in its report, “the assessment of exposure of bystanders and residents is based on limited data from studies conducted in the 1980s and data from the US’ environmental protection agency (EPA).”

However, as Anses pointed out, the European Food Safety Authority EFSA) is currently working on updating its exposure assessment methods, the results of which should be known by 2021.

This means that the distances announced by the government, certainly based on the scientific report of the Anses, are already obsolete.

Pending the EFSA report, the French association Générations Futures issued a statement in which its director, François Veillerette, called on “the government to be responsible and consider these important weaknesses by significantly increasing the safety distances between inhabited areas and areas sprayed with fertilisers.”

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An EU court ruled on 7 March that the EU Food Safety Authority (EFSA) should publicise studies about Monsanto’s glyphosate, the world’s most commonly used weedkiller, which has sparked intense controversy in Europe.

Even shorter distances due to charters

In addition to the executive order, another decree was put out for consultation on Monday (9 September), relating to the departmental charters of commitments between farmers, residents and elected officials.

These charters, which will also come into force on 1 January 2020, will be part of the measures set out in the Energy Transition Law on Food and Agriculture of October 2018.

However, these charters provide for even shorter minimum distances. These “may be reduced to three metres for low crops and viticulture and up to five metres for other crops, provided that the most environmentally efficient spraying equipment is used.”

The departmental charters of commitments, which need to be notified to the prefect, will be drawn up by organisations representing pesticide users. These organisations will collaborate with people living near areas likely to be treated and with associations working at the level of the department concerned.

They will also be the subject of public consultation.

Fear of ‘amputation’

Interviewed by news station RTL on Saturday (7 September), Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume firmly opposed the 150-metre exclusion zone, which has been set up in several municipalities.

“If we had to remove 150 metres of the cultivated agricultural area from every French field, between 20% and 30% of that area would be ‘amputated’. It would be a tragedy, and it would amputate agricultural production,” Guillaume said.

Like Ecological Transition Minister Elisabeth Borne, Guillaume praised the decree, stating that France would thus become the first European country to implement such exclusionary distances.

But the Anses report cites Slovenia, Walloon Belgium and Germany as European countries that have implemented these. In Germany, for example, distances amount to only two metres for low crops and five metres for low ones.

Pesticides: greater transparency in the approval process?

The system for approving pesticides has to show greater transparency, a special committee of the European Parliament has concluded. An article by EURACTIV France’s media partner, the Journal de l’environnement.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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