Between a tomato grown in greenhouses, without much taste but very cheap, and an expensive organic tomato, reddened by the sun in the open ground, more and more fruit and vegetable growers are testing a third way: the guaranteed "zero pesticide residue". With a small, round green label, a group of 52 producers has launched a mini-revolution in the world of fresh vegetables in just over a year.
FIn 2017, seven founding companies forged the concept, which is now attracting the attention of public authorities and the retail sector: eight brands adopted it in one year.
The promise to the consumer concerns the absence of any residue of active substances, guaranteed by an independent certified laboratory, Cofrac, and an external control body, Kiwa: no banned substances, no neonicotinoid insecticides, no glyphosate, within the limit of 0.00001 g per kilo, which is well below the maximum authorised residue limits, which are the legal thresholds set by the European Union.
The collective "New Fields" now produces 46 species of fresh fruit and vegetables under this label.
How do they do it? While organic farming is an obligation of means, with zero synthetic products used during cultivation, ZRP producers have an obligation of result: no pesticide residues at the end.
During cultivation, inputs are severely limited. Biological control is used, greenhouses in off-ground cultivation using regularly changed substrates to prevent the spread of epidemics in the soil, auxiliary insects predatory of other species attacking the plants .
These producers are already demanding a rapid reduction in chemical products: in one year, on nearly 500 plots involved in the project, "we have reduced our phytosanitary treatment frequency indicator (IFT) by 51%," says Gilles Bertrandias, president of the "Nouveaux Champs" collective and head of the southern French cooperative, Les Paysans de Rougeline. This is the objective set by the entire sector for... 2025.
The big boys in the food industry are getting into it.
Each plot is tested at least twice. The laboratory analyzes the fruit before harvest to determine compliance and then at shipping.
For fruit in continuous harvest such as strawberries, the first test takes place before maturity, then once every fortnight in each plot.
If an insect pest or fungus attacks the crop and treatment is needed to save the crop, the production will be sold as "conventional". About one-third was downgraded last year.
Whereas if an organic producer suffers the same misfortune, he must lose his crop or his label (and he must then repeat the three-year conversion period, during which it is more difficult for him to add value to his products).
The Breton group Saveol, a pioneer in insect greenhouses, joined forces in February 2018 with other Breton companies, Solarenn and Prince de Bretagne, for products free of pesticide residues.
And global canned vegetable giant Bonduelle announced its conversion to zero residue at the agriculture show: it plans to launch three varieties of bagged salads and one of residue-free corn in 2019.
"It is a holistic transformation of the entire group," said its CEO Guillaume Debrosse. According to him, in addition to "generic" organic products, residue-free products allow for "diversification", centred on the "health" of the consumer.
To combat consumer mistrust
In its industry contract submitted to the États-Généraux de l'alimentation, the fruit and vegetable inter-professional organisation was concerned about the "mistrust of French consumers with regard to production conditions".
The area was scalded by a study of Future Generations last year that 2.7% of the fruit samples analyzed by the DGCCRF had pesticide levels above the allowable limits.
Since then, the label guarantees consumers that there are no pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables within the limit of quantification. While there are two categories of pesticides, synthetic pesticides and so-called "natural" pesticides, the farmers involved in the approach subject their production to the analysis of 413 active substances used in pesticides and registered in France, not counting active substances of the neonicotinoid family, those described as glyphosate and those likely to generate residues due to the existence of other crops. "We measure everything that can be measured. We measure everything that can be measured. Our method is extremely demanding and doesn't let anything slip through the cracks," says Bertrandias.
On the price side, the prices of zero residue fruit and vegetables are halfway between conventional and organic.
According to Thierry Cotillard, CEO of Intermarché, "zero pesticide residue is an intelligent approach that is a hit on the shelves". "What we fear is that they lack volume, because demand is very high. »
"Switching production to a PRZ represents a big risk for farmers, partly because they have to invest in new means of production and partly because yields are lower than in conventional agriculture. Increasing volumes is an important issue. For this to happen, our approach must be known and well understood by consumers," believes in LSA Patrick Larrère, carrot producer and manager of Fermes Larrère in the Landes.