Last Tuesday, I watched as tractors took over the Place de la Bastille. Their bright colors shone in the spring sun. Bike riders slalomed among them. Pedestrians waved at the drivers and took pictures.
But the bucolic image of the countryside invading Paris had a bitter taste. On board the tractors were commodity farmers—mostly cereal producers. Their t-shirts read "Fauchés comme les blés" on one side and "Attention, paysans en colère" on the other—the former, "cut down like wheat," a play on words meaning stone-broke, the latter translating as "beware of angry farmers."
The facts are quite striking: despite EU and French subsidies of about 260 euros per hectare (that is $140 per acre with a dollar at 0.75 euros), cereal farmers foresee net revenues for the year as low as negative 80 euros per hectare (-$43 per acre—yes, that's 80 and 43 below zero). After last year, when dairy producers were hit by milk price fluctuations, cereal producers are now fighting to survive. It is further evidence—as if we need further evidence - that the French agricultural system is failing.
In a recent article in Télérama, a French cultural magazine, Rémy Vincent interviews Marc Dufumier, an agronomist, teacher, and researcher on agricultural matters. Dufumier provides a thorough analysis of the agricultural system, from how it all started, to how it is no longer sustainable, to a vision of the future of French agriculture.
Its foundations were laid during the post-war period, Dufumier explains. Back then, Europe lacked self-sufficiency and could not produce enough of its own cereals, sugar, milk, and meat. So the government provided incentives, some of which guaranteed prices, for farmers to increase production in these sectors. The model worked: farms grew bigger and bigger through investments made possible by the guaranteed prices. Bigger operations led to more specialization—a trend that demand from food companies and retailers, who needed more and more standardized products in order to offer the lowest possible prices, only reinforced.
France is now the biggest cereal producer in Europe, and the second largest exporter worldwide after the U.S. But the system remained the same in a changing global environment, and the side effects we ignored started to add up—both of which combined to make a situation that is no longer sustainable.
The globalization of agriculture brought in new competitors, especially in commodity sectors like cereals, as well as speculation on staple foods prices. The price of cereals, which boomed in 2007 at 270 euros per ton on average, has collapsed since then; it was at 110 euros per ton in 2009. European and French subsidy systems tackled such situations for a while, but are no longer able to do so, partly because such price crises are coming from all fronts. They have failed to maintain the guaranteed prices on which the system was built.
Hyper-specialization led to absurd situations. There is now a total disconnection between livestock farming and crops growing, where farms used to be a combination of both. Dufumier takes the example of Brittany, now highly specialized in cattle, where farmers import soy from Brazil to feed the livestock. The lack of cereal production prevents Brittany's farmers from doing what our ancestors used to do: mix the animal waste with hay to produce fertilizers. Instead, the waste remains waste, polluting local groundwater. Conversely, the Parisian basin, highly specialized in cereals, could use this potential fertilizer from Brittany. Instead, farmers import non-organic fertilizers.
The race for more production led not only to a loss in biodiversity, with some species and their lower yields being left behind, but also to a loss in quality. Recent food scandals have left consumers wondering what our farmers are doing, Dufumier notes. And they question the legitimacy of subsidies—for which we all pay through taxation—if the end result of agriculture is of such poor quality.
The farmers I talked to on Tuesday were very aware of all of this. They all agree that the system, conceived in another time and another world, no longer functions. But they feel betrayed, players of a game whose fundamental rules have changed. And they feel powerless, most of them, especially the young ones, lacking the financial capacity to change the way they practice agriculture.
In Télérama's article, Dufumier proposes ways to create a new system of French agriculture. "There is a growing market for quality products," he says. Organic is one: France imports 10 percent more organic products every year, since it is unable to provide them from within. Dufumier's idea is that "subsidies should be geared towards helping transitions to agriculture centered on quality." An agriculture that would move from specialization to diversification. From blindly growing a single crop, to reconnecting to the terroir, growing crops and raising breeds adapted to it.
"By doing so," Dufumier points out, "we will stop being unfair competition to other countries with our subsidized commodities, especially countries from the South." He adds, "Farmers would ultimately get their revenues from their work, not from subsidies, consumers would be grateful for better products and farmers would recover their dignity."