‘Imposing expansion of organic farming by decree counterproductive’: Farmer, ag industry executive challenges Europe to rethink its anti-biotech, anti-nuclear ideology

In the midst of the Farm to Fork (F2F) debate and the renegotiation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the European Scientist gives the floor to Pierre Pagesse, one of the leading lights of European agriculture. A retired farmer, Pierre Pagesse served as President of the LIMAGRAIN Cooperative Group, the fourth largest seed company in the world, and of the Movement for a World Organization for Agriculture (WOAGRI). Pagesse previously headed the National Interprofessional Grouping of Seeds and Seedlings (GNIS) and now serves as chairman of the Board of Directors of the Centre d’Etudes, de Formation et d’Action Paysans.

In this exclusive interview, Mr. Pagesse speaks about the future of the agriculture in Europe and the impending threats it faces, as well as the role of the European institutions, biodiversity, intensive and sustainable farming, organic foods, front-of-pack food labels such as Nutriscore and Eco-score, and new breeding techniques (NBTs) – all key topics facing European agriculture in the years ahead.

Pierre Pagesse

The European Scientist: What is your view on European agriculture in general? What are our continent’s strengths and weaknesses compared to other parts of the world?

Pierre Pagesse: As far as France is concerned, we have the safest, healthiest, and most diversified food and agriculture in the world. All of this has been recognised by UNESCO. Europe also offers its own considerable diversity. In spite of all this, we continue to pile on the constraints. Europe has already stopped being self-sufficient in terms of food. Despite it being essential in this unstable international order where Europe will become the playground of the global powers, there is no geostrategic vision guiding our agricultural policy. If Europe is unable to ensure its future in terms of food, it will be thoroughly weakened. There can be no political independence without food autonomy. The same applies to energy: if we refuse to develop nuclear power, we will be dependent in terms of energy not only on oil-producing countries, but also on gas-producing countries (such as China, Turkey, and Russia).

In order to build upon all of our advantages, we must return to a genuine agricultural policy that is forward-looking and allows us to escape these traps. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has forecast a reduction of between 12 and 17% in agricultural production with the future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This is extremely worrying, including in relation to environmental objectives. We are going to import tons of CO2 that we will not have captured at home.

The structuring of our institutions bears considerable responsibility, especially DG Sanco, which is currently in charge of the CAP reform under discussion with DG Agri. Previously, there was permanent mediation between DG Agri and the various institutions of the European Commission. Unfortunately, there is no longer any level of harmonisation. The CAP was the only uniform policy in the EU, and now it is being unravelled… it is absurd.

Our continent, while neglecting its own potential and opportunities, imposes certain constraints and obligations on itself which are completely ineffective, leading to its inability to feed its own population.

For example, we are obliged to respect WHO rules and to import more than 35 million tonnes of GMOs, but we cannot produce them ourselves! How can I, as a farmer, understand our importation of products that we are not allowed to grow on our own soil?

TES: Describing the Farm to Fork (F2F) plan, Frans Timmermans said: “The coronavirus crisis has shown how vulnerable we all are, and how important it is to restore the balance between human activity and nature. The biodiversity and Farm to Fork strategies, which are at the heart of the Green Deal, put forward a new and better balance within nature.” What is your opinion?

PP: This is silly. How can anyone believe that today’s pandemic is due to a biodiversity problem? If we are succeeding in curbing the pandemic, it is thanks to science. This statement is the opposite of the experience of human history.

Pandemics come from geographical areas where agriculture is not specialised, such as in parts of Asia or Africa. In Europe, with specialised farming, there is no longer any cohabitation between poultry and pigs. The evolution of agriculture and specialisation protects humanity from the passage of viruses from animals to humans.

Credit: Wired

I would add that if our biodiversity still persists today, it is thanks to the fact that our management was not as bad as all that. Rare plants that existed more than 60 years ago can still be found today, such as the gagée des rochers in my commune in the Massif Central. In the Limagne wine-growing area, wild orchids had returned alongside the cultivated plots, but they are disappearing again since this zone reverted to fallow land, even though it is now classified as a Natura 2000 site. The disappearance of viticulture has led to a loss of biodiversity; we must stop believing that human activity is systematically harmful to it. In many environments, biodiversity has been shaped by human activity, as shown by the ecologist Christian Lévêque. Is it not a denial of our humanity to pretentiously want to restore a “bygone nature”?

Mr. Timmermans, through his position as climate commissioner, is trying with all his might to influence the future rules of agricultural policy… which itself illustrates that we no longer have a forward-looking, transversal vision. There is a lack of strategic approach, of forward thinking. This is extremely damaging.

TES: The Commission wants to take strong measures to reduce agricultural inputs (such as chemical pesticides, reduction in the use of fertilisers, and antimicrobials). Do you think these proposals are wise?

PP: What could possibly be the rationale behind saying that “to improve human health, we need to abolish the pharmacopoeia?” This would only make things worse. The purpose of phytopharmaceuticals, including synthetic ones, is to control against threats to our crops: viruses, fungi, bacteria, insects, and weeds that seriously affect the quality of our food and thus the health of the consumer. For agricultural production to be healthy, it must be cared for. And it must be carried out with the appropriate expertise.

Phytosanitary products are not reimbursed by the social security system, and farmers who are good managers know how to adjust the dose as closely as possible without wasting money. It is important to use the right doses of medicine at the right time. However, there are fewer and fewer approvals, which restricts farmers’ choices and increases pest resistance. This is the opposite of effectiveness.

Organic farming faces the same problem, with even fewer resources at its disposal.

Moreover, between a natural decoction and an identical, precisely dosed synthetic molecule, which is more harmful and less effective? Chemophobia (fear of chemistry) is a real problem. People don’t understand that chemistry is everywhere, including in the production of organic products, even if the active principle comes from an organic source.

I once advised Bernard Debré, who was looking into the evolution of GMO law on behalf of President Sarkozy. I had to explain to him that despite the utility of this technology, it would not eliminate the need for inputs – a falsehood he had been convinced of. On this subject, people will believe and say just about anything.

TES: F2F aims to increase the area of organic farming to 25% in the EU. Do you think this is a good thing?

PP: I have absolutely nothing against the organic market. It is up to the consumer to choose. But imposing the expansion of organic farming by administrative decree is counterproductive on several levels, starting with the environment.

I have made the following calculation: one hectare of conventional wheat (72 quintals) captures 21 tonnes of CO2 and one hectare of organic wheat (27 quintals) captures eight tonnes. Despite taking into account an additional tonne of CO2 emissions due to the difference in inputs from conventional farming, the positive balance still remains at an average of 12 tonnes in favour of rational conventional farming. The development of organic farming is therefore counterproductive in terms of CO2 capture.

Credit: Nedrofly/iStock

Nor does organic food add anything in terms of nutrition or taste. These two measurable and quantifiable added values are due to varietal differences and/or ripening processes. Numerous studies have demonstrated this.

As a general rule, regarding the food quality of organic products, we consider the specifications and not the result. This is not true for conventional products, where there is systematic research into mycotoxins in wheat or maize, for example. However, if we look at the products that are likely to be recalled, they are most often organic products. The risks of having harmful substances in the corresponding products are much greater. I may sound like a crank when I say this, but as my friend François Michelin used to say to me: “Kid, if the theory contradicts the facts, go with the facts.”

The decrease in yields in Europe will have an even greater environmental footprint. A parallel can be drawn with the ILUC coefficient, which is based on the following principle: every time we create a non-food hectare, we have to create a food hectare elsewhere in the world. This principle, which was imposed on us by the ecologists, will of course have the same consequences. The efficiency of agriculture is therefore the best way to help the environment, because it has made it possible to satisfy growing needs with effectively the same amount of space (around one and a half billion hectares) on a planetary scale, while avoiding massive deforestation.

TES: The Commission wants to “empower consumers to choose healthy and sustainable diets through labelling” and one of the candidates – among a number of options – is the Nutriscore nutritional label. What is your opinion of this particular system?

PP: It is imperative to educate the public on what a balanced diet is, in order to move towards nutritional balance. Nutrition entails a certain quantity of proteins, carbohydrates, fatty acids, fibres, nutrients, etc. Taking a food and sticking a label on it means nothing. It is the composition of the meal that is important. You can achieve a balanced diet with more or less varied sources containing the basic elements mentioned. It is the diversity of this diet and the nutritional balance that counts. Information on a product taken in isolation is meaningless. The intrinsic composition of a foodstuff does not provide information regarding the nutritional balance of the overall diet, which itself depends on the age of the person (whether young and growing or elderly), their physical activity or participation in sports, or even on their morphological characteristics, which are linked to their genetic heritage.

If we need to educate people about the basics, this label is meaningless. The Nutriscore does not give us any information about these basic principles that make up a balanced diet. The other day my grandson wanted to eat ketchup with his red meat. As a general rule, we don’t eat ketchup, but my wife has some for when the children come to visit. The older one told us: “Ketchup is no good, just look at the label, there is too much sugar and too much salt.” He knew how to comment on the label, but he didn’t have the presence of mind to realize that if the ketchup was salty, that meant he didn’t need to re-salt his meat. Which I explained and pointed out to him.

We must also take into consideration the fact that less processed products are more heavily penalised. This goes against the wishes of many people in our communities, who increasingly seem to want to buy directly from the producer and take the time to cook at home, which is a real trend at the moment. Generalised labelling could lead us in the opposite direction of this trend.

This kind of application ultimately lengthens the distance between production and consumption. Relying on algorithms to know whether I am eating well or badly seems to me to be far out of step with common sense and know-how.

TES: Building on this idea, some people are promoting eco-score labelling, which would indicate which foods contain pesticides. What is your opinion?

PP: This is yet another aberrant proposal from the citizens’ convention that took place in France. If we go back to what we said earlier about organic foods, this idea makes absolutely no sense. According to this system, organic food will be labelled as being better for the environment, which as I explained earlier is very often nonsensical.

Another example are local food networks, for which it is difficult to demonstrate that they are better for the environment, even if they have the advantage of bringing the producer and the consumer closer together. Things needs to be considered as a whole.

Labelling is often chosen for commercial reasons. The big brands aren’t lacking in imagination in this competitive process, which they engage in without worrying about the balance and sustainability of the overall production chain.

But as we have laid out, this is not necessarily true. We therefore end up with the same informational bias as with Nutriscore.

TES: F2F proposes to invest €10 billion in research and innovation in food and the bioeconomy, natural resources, agriculture, fisheries, aquaculture, and the environment under the Horizon Europe programme. What about new technologies?

PP: It is important to adapt oneself to any circumstance. Increasing the budget by 30% is very good. If the idea is to stimulate research and innovation in order to preserve a certain level of independence, that is even better.

As for the objective of sustainable development, it must be looked at in a forward-looking manner, with research and technologies that would enable us to make real progress. For example, new breeding techniques (NBTs) that will enable us to accelerate our plants’ tolerance to pests or climatic variations. These objectives are not being put forward. There is therefore a real paradox in this Europe that accepts messenger RNA vaccines and rejects targeted genetic mutations so that plants can become autoimmune against their aggressors. The potential for innovation is thus blocked.

The ecological transition is good, but to be effective, it must be based on solutions that contribute scientifically to sustainable development – not on ideology or clientelism.

TES: F2F aims to promote a global transition. Do you think that the new requirements will really allow European agriculture to stand out?

PP: There are two systems of agricultural protection in the world. One entails protection at the country’s borders, with customs duties and financial compensation due to imbalances in world agricultural markets. In Europe, aid is decoupled from production and no longer plays this role. The Americans, a great agricultural nation, have minimum prices below which they compensate their farmers. Europe, which has signed global free trade agreements on agriculture, has done so without adapting its agricultural policy. This policy is increasingly based on environmental constraints, and this imbalance calls into question our precarious food independence and its geostrategic aspects.

It is time to remedy this, but the premises of the new CAP do not seem to be going in that direction. Competition must be fair if it is to be effective. Decision-makers, the ball is in your court.

A version of this article was originally posted at European Scientist and has been reposted here with permission. The European Scientist can be found on Twitter @EuropeScientist