Analysis: The claim that we in New Zealand produce beef, sheep meat and dairy products more efficiently than anywhere else in the world has surely died a natural death. We can’t hide polluted rivers and lakes, palm kernel, methane and nitrous oxide and, an email from a French friend last week pointed out, some aspects of our animal welfare code.

My friend’s email included an article she came across on Facebook by French Member of Parliament Francois Ruffin deploring the free trade agreement our PM signed with the European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen for marginal increases in our agricultural products.

Why, he raged, should French people be exposed to the residues of pesticides banned in Europe but widely used in New Zealand agriculture?

The increases in trade are so small as to seriously disappoint our farmers – the quota for milk powder grows from 5000 tonnes to 15,000 over seven years; the Meat Industry Association says it allows only 10,000 tonnes of beef into a market that consumes 6.5 million tonnes annually.

The comparative insignificance of the increase is irrelevant to Ruffin’s indignation. His concern centres on the presence of two chemicals – atrazine and diflubenzuron.

Atrazine, widely used here as a weed killer of broadleaf plants, is banned in 60 countries including in Europe since 2003 where its role as an endocrine disruptor was a prime reason. Such chemicals, of which there are said to be about 1500, interfere with the body’s hormones and disrupt their communication pathways by blocking or by mimicking natural hormones such as estrogen. They are also referred to as phytoestrogens.

Where, asks the president of the sheep farmers’ federation, Michele Boudoin, is sustainability when you transport sheep meat that is “doused in liquid nitrogen” 22,000 km on a boat that takes 12 weeks to get here?

Atrazine continues to be used in the US, except in five US territories including Hawaii, and also in Australia where the opposition cites endocrine-disrupting effects on male fertility.

Here, atrazine is one of those chemicals we’ll likely be imbibing a fraction more of in our drinking water since the permissible levels have been raised by the Drinking Water Standards Authority Taumata Arowai. The new standards come into effect in November.

Diflubenzuron is a pesticide, or acaricide. It was banned in Europe only in January 2021 but has been integral to our agriculture for years. It destroys the larvae of many unwanted insects and is used as a sheep drench to prevent flystrike. It also controls the acarid fly in mushrooms and is incorporated into feed for salmon in fish farms to kill the sea lice that infect them.

It’s described as not posing an acute toxicity to mammals, fish and birds but is lethal in waterways. The instructions on one common brand available here warn that it is “very toxic to aquatic organisms” and to “avoid contamination of any water supply”.

And then there’s the fact that we are the world’s largest importer of palm kernel residue to feed our dairy cows. How, asks M. Ruffin, can France claim to be a defender of tropical forests and at the same time sign a trade agreement with a country whose agriculture contributes to their destruction?

This man has done his homework. He’s found out that in the 50 or so pages of our animal welfare code relative to the transport of animals there is heaps about the conditions for transport. But it’s hard to see anything specifying the number of hours they can stand in a truck – except, I found, in the case of calves collected soon after birth where the limit is 12 hours.

Ruffin is demanding that President Emmanuel Macron submit the EU agreement to the French parliament for ratification. Ruffin, and a host of others, are demanding that these imported products should respect the so-called “clauses miroirs” which require conformity of imported products to European laws that protect the environment and the health of consumers. This, he writes, assures “equitable competition” amongst producers.

Ruffin is a member of the party called la France Insoumise which translates variably as Rebellious, Unbowed or Insubordinate France and whose programme campaigns for socialist and ecological values. Its leader is veteran politician Jean-Luc Melenchon. In the first round of the presidential election in April this year Melenchon came in third, narrowly behind right-wing Marine Le Pen.

La France Insoumise isn’t the only group unhappy with our trading privilege.

Where, asks the president of the sheep farmers’ federation, Michele Boudoin, is sustainability when you transport sheep meat that is “doused in liquid nitrogen” (!) 22,000 km on a boat that takes 12 weeks to get here? The quantity she is expecting has been increased by 38,000 tonnes and each “gigot” or leg will be three times cheaper, she says, than her more sustainably produced gigots.

Several agricultural organisations have requested we send only pesticide-free produce. But the equivalence of environmental and sustainable standards were, it seems, less important than what Von Der Leyen describes as the agreement’s “geopolitical significance”.

That means having friends down under and supporting the influence France has via New Caledonia and Tahiti.

Ruffin doesn’t mention another large group of insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, which play a crucial role here but have long had an equivocal status in Europe. Their fate was more permanently decided in Europe in May last year when the European Commission rejected the appeal by Bayer, the manufacturer, against a rule banning them in 2018.

We use five neonics – clothianidin, thiamethoxam, imidacloprid, thiacloprid and acetamiprid – in a total of 65 approved substances used in insecticides and as seed coatings for pasture grasses. Coating seeds avoids spraying and the insecticidal qualities persist as the plants grow. Neonics are also used to control fleas in dogs and cats, and in ant and fly baits.

They were implicated in the huge bee die-off in the US 10-15 years ago, known as colony collapse disorder, when beekeepers lost as much as 40 percent of their colonies. Our losses are consistently little above 10 percent, with last winter’s estimated at 13 percent.

Our only restrictions on the use of pesticides containing neonics are that they not be sprayed on flowering plants or “near” beehives. A bee’s range is up to 5km.

At the time of the 2018 ban in Europe, farmers here expressed concerns about the difficulties they would face if we were to ban them.

The EU has made a pledge to halve pesticide use by 2030. Where will that leave our farmers? Will Macron seek ratification from parliament and what would be the outcome if he did?

It seems to me we should be fast-tracking a substantial transition in our agriculture and encouraging a profound change in our diets. Investments in plant-based alternatives to meat lead to far greater cuts in climate-heating emissions than other green investments, according to a recent report by international consultancy firm Boston Consulting Group.

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