The start of May heralds in Belgian strawberry season, as stalls in farmer’s markets and across corner shops begin to fill up with a favourite fruit of the country. In Wépion, a town in the Namur region also known as “Belgium’s strawberry capital” for its production lavishly ripe berries, members of the Criée de Wépion cooperative of strawberry farmers prepare for the first auction sale of the season, set to take place this week and after which their brand is named.
However, environmentalists and organic food shoppers will find that only a limited number of the berries on display, in Wépion or elsewhere, are organic, meaning that they have been grown pesticide-free.
“Strawberry farming is difficult,” a representative of the Wallonian Strawberry Farmers Cooperative told RTBF, adding that since it is particularly vulnerable to plagues and diseases, “organic farmers have to supervise them [like they would] milk on the stove.”
Out of 130 members, only about 15 grow organic strawberries within the cooperative.
But a Namur-based company has developed a farming method that could help strawberry farmers transition out of their reliance on pesticides by using natural methods and plant-based products to fight-off plagues, fungus and other diseases.
“For strawberries, our recipe consists in reinforcing the roots with microorganisms, in a way that’s similar to using probiotics for human health,” said Thierry Picaud, an agricultural engineer who founded Medinbio in 2013. Once the plant has developed, the method then consists of reinforcing it with herbal extracts. To ward off disease, the company has developed plant extracts rich in essential oils, such as thyme, cinnamon or clove.
According to Picaud, this method could enable conventional strawberry farmers to transition into a more natural-based system without sacrificing yield, and could also lead to a decrease in the price of organic strawberries for consumers.
While this pesticide-free approach to farming has already won over producers and food retailers in France, where potatoes and strawberries have been introduced (but are nevertheless sold under a “pesticide-free” label as opposed to an “organic” or “bio” tag), stricter Belgian regulations regarding the use of stimulant substances in farming mean that the method has not yet conquered producers in its own land.
“French law has authorised the use of almost 200 biostimulant natural substances in agriculture,” said Picaud, adding that in Belgium, the list consisted of only 20 substances.