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The Algae of Discord: Intensive Agriculture in a French Region in Question

The Algae of Discord: Intensive Agriculture in a French Region in Question


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By Jérôme Le Boursicot

On the beaches of Brittany, in northwestern France, green algae accumulate during the summer. The origin of the problem is mostly the fertilizers used by farmers.


Every year, tourists who come to enjoy the magnificent Breton coastline flee. They flee from the green algae that accumulate during the summer on the beaches of Brittany, in north-western France. Because they smell bad, to such an extent that they had to cancel the market in Douarnenez, recalls one inhabitant, and they disfigure the beaches. Even worse, they can kill. According to scientists, the blame falls on intensive agriculture.

Algae blooms were observed in the United States, Australia, England, Denmark, the Netherlands or in the Venetian Lagoon, although the algae may be brown or red in color and smaller. By proliferating in the waters, similar algae threatened the sailing competition at the Beijing Olympics in August 2008. The Chinese authorities had to send the army and volunteers to clean up the waters in time. Perhaps the next proliferation of green algae will take place in Argentina, another pest that would be partly the fault of national agriculture.

Brittany's 2,700 kilometers of coastline provide optimal conditions for green algae to develop: there are closed bays that have shallow water, allowing light to pass through, and nutrients are found in the water.

This Breton coast attracts many tourists during the summer, being a primary source of income for the region. Brittany also accounts for 50% of the pigs and 30% of the poultry. Intensive livestock farming nurtures the country, exports agricultural products and employs thousands of people in Brittany. So it is not easy to solve the problem when the two pillars of the local economy, tourism and agriculture, are getting in the way.

Every year, the issue is placed above the media and political table. The problem was especially important when a horse died last year and a man died after spending several hours collecting and moving green algae. It was a record year in terms of collection as more than 20,000 hectares of beach were covered with green algae, according to the Center for the Study and Appreciation of Alga in Brittany, a body supported by local authorities and industrial groups.

In the excitement of the moment, the French government announced measures and in January 2010 launched a five-year plan to combat the proliferation of green algae. Also the Minister of Agriculture, Bruno Le Maire, and the Secretary of State in charge of Ecology, Chantal Jouanno walked symbolically and in front of many journalists on an immaculate beach on July 19. They came to inaugurate a composting center and verify the application of the series of measures. The plan wants to treat the damage, that is, "to ensure faultless management of these algae by improving collection techniques and developing the capacities to treat them."

And he wants to attack the source of the problem by preventing green algae from being promoted. The origin of the problem is mostly the fertilizers used by farmers. Therefore, the plan consists of reducing the flow of nitrates, those substances that fertilizers contain and generate the phenomenon. Nitrates reach the beaches through rivers that flow into the sea. Plants do not absorb all of the nitrates contained in fertilizers and, consequently, they diffuse in nature, dripping in the fields.

Like many environmental associations, the Eaux et rivières de Bretagne association wants the culprits, that is farmers and agricultural groups, to pay for eliminating their waste and that it is not the French taxpayers who do it.

Yves-Marie Beaudet, President of Cap Bretagne, an association of trade unions and various agricultural organizations founded especially so that the sector has a united voice on the environmental problem, regrets that these environmental associations stigmatize farmers. "We are not the only ones responsible, there are other sources of contamination."

In addition to the nitrates that come from agriculture, that is, the hydrogen in fertilizers, there are the phosphates that come from domestic and industrial wastewater that was not well treated. But, according to Patrick Durand, specialist on the subject at the National Institute for Agronomic Research, known in France under the acronym INRA, “marine sediments already contain enough phosphates to generate green algae. Furthermore, it is not possible to act on this parameter. " On the other hand, it is possible to act on the concentration of nitrogen that is present in the coastal environment.

For this reason, the government plan tries to make agricultural production systems use less nitrogen and use it more responsibly. Since the beginning of October, farmers in the Bay of Lieue-de-Grèves and the Bay of St-Brieuc, the bays most affected, have to report the total amount of hydrogen used on their farms, and in eight bays they it limited the pressure of hydrogen on the territory located above the river basin. In addition, fresh seaweed collected from the beaches can no longer be thrown into the fields. Many farmers used to use them as fertilizer. Inspections will also be more frequent.

"A farm undergoes 6 or 7 inspections a year," Patrick Keravec, a Breton pig farmer, recalled in Le Télégramme, a local newspaper. He also stated that "obligations are increasingly difficult to bear when half the minimum wage is charged and 70 hours per week are worked." The auditors admit that such inspections are time consuming for farmers. And they add that regulations will tighten, making working conditions for farmers even worse.

Despite these measures, environmental associations remain disappointed by the French government's plan, which emphasizes curative, that is, the collection and treatment of green algae, rather than prevention of the problem, that is, a change deeper into agricultural practices.


A group of 80 Breton associations gathered under the name Baie de Douarnenez Environnement (Bay of Douarnenez Environment), marched on September 19 on one of the affected beaches to ask for a "true program to combat green algae" by the State French. The Bay of Douarnenez, in the Finistère Department, belongs to one of the 8 municipalities in which the French government has prioritized its action to combat the phenomenon. At the beginning of July, they banned public access to one of the largest beaches in the bay due to the promotion of a large amount of green algae.

On September 19, the day of the march, farmers were also present on the beach of Douarnenez. The environmental conflict took place on that beach, although the farmers declared to the French media that all - that is, both parties - must work together to solve this global problem. Yves-Marie Beaudet adds that "actions by farmers already go back more than 15 years" since a European Directive imposed on them to lower their contribution of nitrates in 1991. "The first measures to adjust to the standards cost more than a billion euros, 70% borne by farmers. It was about storing the effluents for longer to spread the fertilizer at the right time and in the right place - taking into account the needs of the plants and the state of the soil - and suppressing direct contamination in the environment. " There were many efforts “that environmental associations do not recognize” and there are visible results. In 10 years, a drop of 20% in the concentration of nitrates in Breton rivers has been noted.

However, the results, as well as the government plan, do not satisfy the merchants, municipalities, inhabitants of the municipalities and environmental associations. The latter want another agriculture. The Scientific Council for the Environment of Brittany, an independent body, considers that "solving the problem of green algae requires a renewal of production systems." The association Urgence Marées Vertes goes further and argues that it is necessary to reduce pig herd by 30%.

How do we get to an intensive agricultural production system that is so harmful to the environment? The French agricultural system dates back some forty years, when, after the Second World War, the country suffered from a lack of food for all. In order to ensure the food self-sufficiency of the nation and of Europe, there was a real agricultural revolution: the territories were specialized and productivism developed. The first negative effects of the system and the Common Agricultural Policy were seen, at European level, through overproduction in the 1970s. Then came environmental problems like green tides. A generation ago, nature could absorb the effluents from smaller farms. But then larger structures were built that use more fertilizers.

Now, France is one of the largest pig producers in Europe, alongside Spain, Denmark, Germany and Poland. There are 600 pigs per square kilometer in Brittany. Pig farms employ about 24,000 people according to the British Chamber of Agriculture.

Lowering production, reducing livestock, as many associations want, would mean fewer farmers in the territories concerned. “That would lead to an imbalance of the local economy, warns the President of Cap Bretagne. Although certain associations demand more resources to modify practices, they also question profitable agriculture, the only one that allows farmers to live off their work ”.

The path to less intensive agriculture is, for many farmers, an option they do not want to consider. With a report from the French Court of Audit produced in 2002, several studies showed the need to reduce livestock in areas of structural nitrogen surplus. Intensive production in Brittany is partly responsible for an average rate of 30.6 mg / l of nitrates in the region's rivers, according to figures from the Water Observatory in Brittany, while all scientists consider that a rate less than 10mg / l to stop the growth of green algae.

The situation results from a lack of political will on the part of the National State, say many actors. But the dramatic events of last summer raised the public health problem that green tides constitute. “And suddenly the green algae became a danger and it was what sounded the alarm. The courts established the role of the French State at the end of 2009, establishing that if it favors intensive agriculture, it must be held responsible for the pollution ”, notes Michel Guillemot, the President of the environmental association Halte aux marées vertes.

The inaction of the French state was not only illustrated in the lack of measures dedicated to changing agricultural practices, but also in its failure to seek the means to comply with European standards and national legislation, says Eaux et Rivières de Bretagne. The association denounces, among other things, the fact that of the 1927 controls carried out in livestock facilities in 2004 - a total of 25,000 - 44% presented major breaches, but only 3% were sanctioned.

The regional authorities are happy that the National State recognized their role. Since they could not, together with the municipalities, bear the collection costs (some 70,000 tons of algae are collected each year in the region), nor do they have the resources to radically change agricultural practices, and “agricultural policy is the responsibility of the State National, adds Ange Herviou, Vice President of the General Council of Côtes d'armor, the department where Lieue-de-Grèves Bay and St-Brieuc Bay are located.

"Now we have to explain to people that it is necessary to wait between 3 or 4 years to have an environmental response to an agronomic measure," says Patrick Durand, the INRA specialist. So later, the effects of the measures taken years ago and since the government plan was launched will be recorded.

There are reasons to hope and reverse the situation, such as replacing current crops with ones that absorb more nitrates such as pasture crops. But, according to Jean-Claude Lamandé, President of the Lieue-de-Grève River Basin Committee, even if they agree, the farmers in their basin would expect aid from the National State to compensate for the loss of profitability. Indeed, a grass-fed dairy cow produces 6000 liters of milk instead of 8000. And the funds of the scheme are far from being sufficient, say farmers and environmental associations.

The environmental party Europe Ecologie Bretagne wants to bring the issue before the European Commission in order to "denounce the inaction of the French State in the fight against green algae." In the last regional elections, in 2010, this party came third, obtaining 17.37% of the seats in the Regional Council. It was the second most voted party in Brittany in terms of the 2009 European elections, with 17.95% of the vote, and the first in Rennes, the capital of the region, with 27.41% of the voters. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is a party that counts for the French and Breton public opinion specifically, an opinion whose environmental awareness continues to grow.

The environmental trend in Argentina is not as strong as it is in France and, more broadly, in Europe. Phenomena similar to Breton green tides, such as red tides in the provinces of Río Negro, Chubut, and Santa Cruz kill men and animals without changing things. It would be necessary to impose regulations or at least control the application of the regulations in force in aquaculture farms that use intensive methods and can have a significant influence on the growth of these red algae. But perhaps in Argentina the economic interests are still too powerful compared to those who want to protect the environment.

Jérôme Le Boursicot He is a French free-lance journalist and is studying Communication and Environment Specialization at the National University of La Plata, in Argentina.


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