The toxic progression of agrochemicals in France

By Benjamin Peyrel (Mediacités)

The European Union on Monday gave the go-ahead to extend the licence for sales of the herbicide glyphosate, recognised by the World Health Organisation as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, for a further five years. The French government, which voted against move, has decided to unilaterally limit the licence to market glyphosate to three years. But France remains Europe’s biggest user, by volume, of agrochemicals, including many considered by scientific studies to present a health risk. Mediapart, in partnership with online journal Mediacités, details here, region by region and with interactive charts, their sales in France by volume, which in turn provides an indication of where they are most employed.

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The European Union Commission’s Appeal Committee on Monday gave the go-ahead to extend the licence for sales of herbicide glyphosate for a further five years after its current authorization runs out on December 15th, causing dismay for environmental campaigners and delight in the agrochemical lobby.

The controversial decision was reached after 18 of the 28 EU member states voted in favour, nine against and one abstained. Glyphosate is a compound that was introduced by US agrochemical giant Monsanto in 1974 and widely marketed in its weedkiller Roundup, which has multi-billion-dollar yearly sales, but after the firm’s patent ran out in 2000 it is also now used widely in products from other brands, and employed massively by farmers across Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Several scientific studies have found evidence that glyphosate may be carcinogenic, a claim dismissed by the agrochemical industry, while other research has thrown doubt on those findings. Environmental organisations underline that on top of health concerns, the non-selective herbicide, widely employed in agriculture, kills off plants which are vital for the wider eco-system.

A 2015 study by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans” and that there was “sufficient evidence” that it causes cancer in animals, while the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that it was unlikely to cause cancer, and the European Chemicals Agency in March this year said there was no evidence it was carcinogenic to humans “based on the information available”.

However, in September, British daily The Guardian revealed that the EFSA report, whose recommendation that glyphosate did not represent a danger to public health was a crucial factor in the EC Appeal Committee decision on Monday, contained numerous pages that had been copy-pasted from a Monsanto report submitted to EFSA by the agrochemical industry’s lobbying body, the “Glyphosate Task Force”.

The IARC’s 2015 report found “limited evidence” that glyphosate was responsible for causing non-Hodgkin lymphoma, mostly based on international studies of exposure to agricultural workers. In France, numerous cases of farmers who claim to have contracted cancer from their exposure to glyphosate have been highlighted in the media (such as in this video, in French).

France had voted against the proposal to extend the licence of the compound for another five years, and following the vote on Monday President Emmanuel Macron announced his government would unilaterally implement a limited three-year extension.

There is growing concern in the country over the use of agrochemicals, resulting in measures such as a ban introduced in January this year on the use of certain chemical products in land maintenance by local authorities and public establishments. France has the largest agricultural production in Europe in terms of sales value, and the largest surface area of utilised farming land. In parallel it is also a massive user of agrochemical products, more than any other European country. In 2016, sales in France of products categorized as “phytosanitary” reached 68,000 tonnes, which was 4,000 tonnes more than in 2009.

Online French regional news journal Mediacités, with which Mediapart is a partner in a series of editorial exchanges, reports here, illustrated with maps, about the extent of the use in France of agrochemical products, focusing on the use, region by region, of the top five most dangerous substances for human health and the environment.  

Mediacités obtained the figures reported here from BNV-d, the public body created in 2009 that collects data from distributors of agrochemical products in France, information which remained confidential until this summer (see page 3).

Above: Run your cursor over any one département to discover the volume of pesticides sold there in 2016, and a comparison with the national average ('moyenne') and median figures. Click on the département to discover the five most dangerous substances sold there, which appear as barrels underneath the map.

The data provides several pictures of practices in rural France. One is of regions with a predominance of cattle farming and diverse crop production, notably in central France, where sales figures suggest pesticides are the least employed. Another is of those regions with large-scale crop production, notably cereals, like the farmlands surrounding Paris, and also the Aquitaine region and in northern France, where there is abundant use of agrochemicals. A third is that of wine-growing regions and those centred on fruit and vegetable crops, which notably include the south-west region around Bordeaux (le Bordelais), the Mediterranean basin, and the Champagne and Loire regions, where sales data also suggests large-scale use of specific types of agrochemicals.

By département (the administrative regions equivalent to a county) it is the Marne, in north-east France, which records the biggest sales by volume of pesticides – and which represent 321% more than the national average. That is followed by the Gironde (316 %) in south-west France, the Aube (291 %) in the north-east, the Vaucluse (210 %) in the south and the Somme (189 %), in the north. Naturally, there is a disproportion caused by the geographical size of the départements, or the economic fabric of the smaller, densely populated urban ones around Paris, or those in mountainous regions.

Above: the 15 départements where agrochemical products are most sold. The bottom-right bar shows the colour code for the yearly average volume of the sales. Click on the tabs bottom-left to see the cart in terms of 1) most dangerous chemicals and 2) those that are the least dangerous (see text for an explanation of the ranking).

“The very definition of a pesticide is that it is harmful for a living organism,” noted, succinctly, a 2012 report by the French Senate, published as part of a fact-finding commission on the wider effects of the use of pesticides (and which was prompted by cases of serious illnesses among farmers believed to have been caused by their use). Whether it is used against a fungus or a particular insect, pesticides have consequences beyond their original target. As Christian Pacteau of the French League for the Protection of Birds in the Vendée region of western France puts it, “A poison is a poison, it acts on the whole of the food chain”. The results of a scientific study in Germany published in October showed that 75% of the populations of flying insects have disappeared over the past 27 years in protected environments in the country, and the authors of the study concluded that global warming could not be the cause, but that, "Pesticide usage, year-round tillage, increased use of fertilizers and frequency of agronomic measures... may form a plausible cause”.

Behind the terms “pesticides”, “agrochemicals” and products that are “phytosanitary” is a very wide range of substances with often obscure names and which vary greatly in the dangers they represent for the environment, humans and animals. For that reason, Mediacités chose to focus on close to 40 products from the 597 that figure in the BNV-d sales data, choosing them on the basis of their harmful effects as recorded by international scientific institutions. When, such as in the case of glyphosate, those institutions disagree on the danger of a product, it is included if at least one scientific study found it to represent a health hazard.

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Mediacités is an independent French online journal of regional news and investigative reports with editorial bases in Lille, Lyon, Nantes and Toulouse. Founded by seven journalists, including former staff of weekly news magazine L’Express and L’Expansion, a financial and business news monthly, Mediacités places priority on investigative journalism, with long-read weekly investigations into issues in each of the regions it covers.

It carries no advertising, and has no industrial or financial investors, and is accessible by subscription (6.9 euros per month, or 59 euros for 12 months). Mediapart is delighted to have entered into an editorial partnership with Mediacités, and hopes to develop the cooperation further, like other active partnerships already established with regional media in France such as Marsactu in Marseille and the satirical monthly based in the south-east of the country, Le Ravi.