Jul 5, 2021
In his plot in northern France, Jean-Paul Dallene watches for the presence of his “illegal workers”, earthworms he hopes to see thrive thanks to “regenerative agriculture”, a concept adopted by the food giants and fashion in search of greening.
The farmer digs in his spade to pull up a potato plant. The tubers will be harvested at the end of the summer for the French factories of the Canadian multinational of frozen fries McCain.
The clod of earth is studded with plant residues that mushrooms take care of breaking down, and strewn with small holes formed by the passage of worms.
“My friends the earthworms, my underground workers”, smiles Jean-Paul Dallene, 51, associated with his brother in Oppy, in the Pas-de-Calais.
The operation has been designated a McCain Pilot Farm. The group recently committed to converting, by 2030, its suppliers to “regenerative farming practices”.
Regenerative, regenerative, regenerative agriculture … The big names in food (Nestlé, Unilever, Danone, General Mills, PepsiCo …) luxury and fashion (LVMH, Kering, Patagonia, The North Face .. .) have adopted these terms, unknown to the general public, in their communications on their environmental commitments.
Objective: to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and reassure them about the sustainability of their supplies of agricultural raw materials such as cotton, for textiles. But there is no common charter, and each company defines its own criteria.
The notion of “regeneration” first appeared in the late 1970s in the agronomic literature in the United States.
Distributed more widely since the 2010s, it covers a set of practices intended to correct the excesses of intensive agriculture practiced since the end of the Second World War, blamed for the decline in biodiversity, soil impoverishment, massive use of water and its impact on global warming.
This generally involves alternating crops, not leaving the soil bare, limiting or even stopping plowing, reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides … while preserving or even increasing yields.
A necessary development to make farms more “resilient” to climate change, according to McCain’s agricultural director in France and Belgium, Maxence Turbant.
In the plain where he also cultivates wheat, sugar beets and vegetables, Jean-Paul Dallene began to wonder “five years ago” in front of a “good plot which was becoming hard” and whose “yields were stagnating. “.
Since then, he has been testing techniques to reduce his interventions in fields which compact the soil, consume diesel fuel and are often accompanied by pesticide treatments.
McCain also financially encourages him to use a technology that warns about the risks of late blight, in order to spray fungicide only if necessary. “Before, we treated every seven days”, up to 22 times a year, describes Jean-Paul Dallene. Eight is sometimes enough now.
The pilot farms “aim to show other farmers that it works” during on-site training, explains Maxence Turbant.
How will the impacts on the environment be assessed? “The tools are being refined” with the help of the specialized Earthworm foundation, indicates the head of McCain, Maxence Turbant. No “greenwashing” in there, he assures: “We move at the rhythm of nature, we cannot revolutionize everything in a year.”
The French Danone has been talking about regenerative agriculture since 2017. Eric Soubeiran, its vice-president in charge of sustainable development, defends the sincerity of this commitment: “When a company invests resources in time, in people, in energy, in intelligence, you you are not in the incantation, you are in the transformation of a model. “
“I am happy that companies have followed suit,” he adds, specifying that it was however important to set specific criteria and objectives.
Danone has developed an evaluation grid with the NGO WWF. And uses “satellite tools, artificial intelligence” to “monitor the impact” on greenhouse gas emissions.
The announcements of companies committing to regenerative agriculture leave Arnaud Gauffier, program director of the NGO WWF France, wondering. They should, according to him, define “quickly robust minimum criteria” otherwise this “interesting concept” will be “emptied of its substance”.
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