Why conduct a foresight study?
Exploring disruptive solutions with an ambitious objective: eliminating pesticides
The aim of a foresight study is not to predict the future. Rather, it is meant to help us look ahead and identify sound options and the knowledge needed to achieve the desired objectives. The “European Pesticide-Free Agriculture in 2050” foresight study was conducted over two years by INRAE, at the request of the priority research programme “Growing and protecting crops differently” (PPR-CPA). It explores disruptive solutions with an ambitious objective: eliminate pesticides. Some 144 scientific experts worked together with the European Research Alliance ERA Pesticide Free (34 members, 20 countries) for the study. The findings were presented and debated with the general public, farmers, supply and agri-food industry stakeholders, NGOs, French and European public authorities and more on 21 March 2023. The study seeks to share insights with stakeholders and public policies.
The novel study provides added value through:
- three narrative scenarios, which plausibly combine different coherent assumptions;
- the quantification of yields, impact on trade, diets, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for each scenario, etc.;
- possible pathways to eliminate pesticides;
- four regional case studies to apply the scenarios in Italy, Romania, Finland and France.
WHAT IS A CHEMICAL PESTICIDE?
This term refers to synthetic pesticides (whether or not the substance exists naturally), substances extracted from living organisms and minerals such as copper and sulphur.
It excludes the living organisms (microorganisms and natural enemies) used in biocontrol.
HOW HAS WATER MANAGEMENT BEEN TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT?
First, precipitation trends between now and 2050 have been included in the yield estimations for 2050.
Second, two regional case studies went even further:
- in Romania, for vegetable production, the transition pathway includes the use of water conservation methods by 2030 to cope with the consequences of climate change in the region (currently drip irrigation covers more than 90% of the vegetable sector);
- in Tuscany, for durum wheat production, the transition pathway foresees the use of durum wheat varieties that are tolerant to both pests and drought.
What are the three scenarios?
Totally eliminating pesticides would mean a radical systemic change. Conventional agriculture, which is currently the main system, could not sustain yields by simply stopping pesticide use without making further changes. The entire way production is organised must be changed, from agricultural supplies to crop marketing, processing, food product distribution and our diets. The major approaches to pesticide-free plant protection are:
- plant immunity (genetic resistance and stimulation of natural defences);
- interactions between plants and microbiota (or the holobiont formed by a plant and its microbial assemblage) that could be managed to promote crop health. This is a promising but less advanced avenue because knowledge is still being acquired;
- landscape organisation and development to expand the habitat of natural enemies to ward off or reduce pests and diseases, namely through plant associations and agroforestry. The diversification of crop rotations (series of crops grown in a field) can also help control weeds.
All of these approaches need enhanced epidemiological surveillance and preventive actions. They are leveraged to different degrees in each scenario.
HAS ORGANIC FARMING BEEN TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT?
This mode of production, which by definition does not use synthetic pesticides, provides real-world insights and practices that have helped shape the scenarios, and specifically the practices of temporal and spatial diversification of crops.
Assumptions on approaches to protection, diets, trade and environmental impact were combined to create three scenarios:
- “Global market”, which generalises the commercialisation of pesticide-free products, without a major change in European diets. It is illustrated by the case of a durum wheat sector for pasta production in Tuscany.
- “Healthy microbiomes”, with the production of healthy foods for healthier diets (fewer animal products, sugars and oils and more pulses, fruits and vegetables). It is illustrated with vegetable production in Romania.
- “Embedded landscapes for One Health”, which promotes human health through food and environmental protection with diversified landscapes (consumption of slightly fewer animal products, fruits and vegetables than in the second scenario). It is illustrated with cereal and oilseed production in Finland and sustainable viticulture in France (Bergerac-Duras).
Each scenario allows for a differentiated level of agricultural production and varying resilience to climate change, including:
|Scenario||1 - Global market||2 - Healthy microbiomes||3 - Embedded landscapes|
|Reduction in GHG emissions||8%||20%||37%|
(low yield assumption)
All three scenarios would also have a positive effect on terrestrial biodiversity in Europe.
WHAT ARE THE IMPACTS ON AGRICULTURAL LAND USE?
The reduction in GHG emissions is achieved mainly by decreasing livestock production (especially ruminants) and converting grassland to wooded areas.
What are the key takeaways?
- Pesticide-free agriculture starts at the table: the transition requires rethinking the entire food system by getting consumers involved
> supply and consumption choices
- With diets that include more plants and better meet our nutritional needs, we can simultaneously achieve better health outcomes for populations, eliminate pesticides in agriculture, ensure European food sovereignty, reduce our GHG emissions and improve ecosystem health.
- The following actions could make pesticide-free agriculture possible:
> diversifying crops and landscapes;
> developing biocontrol;
> choosing suitable crops and varieties;
> preventing and planning for crop insect pests, weeds and diseases;
> leveraging digital technology and agricultural equipment.
- Transitioning to pesticide-free agriculture requires coherent and coordinated public policies on the use of pesticides, food, CAP reforms, international agreements and support for the transition with different tools (subsidies, insurance, etc.). The various stakeholders must share the risk of transforming their cropping systems and the agricultural and agri-food supply.
The four regional case studies led to valuable discussions between scientists and actors on the ground. Some of them are willing to continue in this direction. These findings come at an opportune time with regard to the negotiation schedule for the proposed European Sustainable Use of Pesticides (SUR) regulation, which aims to set binding targets for pesticide reduction for Member States, as well as the Ecophyto 2030 regulation for France. The study can also serve as a reference for the annual review of the new CAP programming, which entered into force at the beginning of 2023. Research must be mobilised to produce knowledge on technological, organisational and public policy levers, and is a priority for the France 2030 and Horizon Europe investments.
HOW DOES THE GLOBAGRI MODEL USED FOR QUANTIFICATION WORK?
The mathematical model covers 21 geographical regions (including 8 in Europe) and 38 agricultural products. It features various input parameters to which a value has been set in line with the scenarios: population, diet, non-food uses of agricultural products, crop yield, etc.
It allows links between equations, such as between animal and plant products via animal feed. Another example is that the sum of all imports equals all exports. When demand exceeds the cropland area, exports are stopped; if this is not enough, imports are added. Grassland areas can be freely adjusted (but never transformed into arable land).