Income, ecology, free trade... 7 questions to understand the French agricultural world

Income, ecology, free trade… 7 questions to understand the French agricultural world

The Salon de l’Agriculture is being held in Paris from February 24 to March 3, while agricultural anger is still brewing and the profession continues to question its future. Income, ecology, free trade… an overview of a sector in seven major questions.

1. Europe. Is France still benefiting from billions from the CAP?

With 9.5 billion euros in 2022, French farmers remain the main beneficiaries of the common agricultural policy (CAP) of the European Union (EU), implemented sixty years ago, far ahead of their Spanish neighbors ( 6.9 billion) and Germans (6.4 billion). Calculated according to the production of member countries – France is the leading agricultural power of the Twenty-Seven – this aid represents 33% of the EU budget in 2023. It is divided into two categories: income aid indexed on the number of hectares or the number of animals of the operator on the one hand; subsidies for rural development and the agri-environmental transition of farmers which are co-financed by the State on the other hand. This support is essential for the cereal, dairy and beef sectors, flagship productions of Ferme France. “Mountain livestock farming lives on life support, particularly for its role in the maintenance of natural spaces. In certain places in the Massif Central, the total aid received by farmers is greater than the income of their businesses,” underlines Jean-Marie Séronie, independent agroeconomist, member of the French Academy of Agriculture. If the CAP crystallizes peasant anger, it is not for the amount of its aid but for the accumulation of European and national administrative procedures (often costly because they are carried out by a specialized advisor), the conditions to be respected and the controls which are carried out. follow.

2. Food sovereignty. Is it threatened?

Defined as the right of each country to maintain and develop its own capacity to produce its food to ensure its food security at the national and community level 1, food sovereignty constitutes “the mother of battles”, according to Emmanuel Macron. However, according to Thierry Pouch, economist at the Permanent Assembly of Chambers of Agriculture, the observation is clear: “Neither France nor Europe is experiencing a collapse in their capacity to be sovereign over their food. Unsurprisingly, with self-sufficiency rates (the ratio between the production of a commodity and its domestic consumption) of 195% for soft wheat (5th largest producer in the world) or 292% for barley, France remains a cereal power. This surplus concerns also skimmed milk powder (265%), wine (135%) or potatoes (113%). Conversely, rice (8%), soya (48%) necessary to feed our cattle herd and tropical fruits (15%) present low self-sufficiency but these dependencies can be explained by geographical factors, not by an erosion of French production.

Food sovereignty as mentioned by political figures does not concern the country’s food security – this is fully assured – but the maintenance of its agriculture as an instrument of economic and geopolitical power. From this perspective, the Achilles heel of the France farm lies in the fertilization of its soil. “We have neither potash nor phosphate and we only produce a third of our nitrogen fertilizers, the rest being imported, particularly from Russia,” emphasizes Jean-Marie Séronie. Paradoxically, France therefore does not have control over the fuel for its agricultural engine.

3. Income. Who earns the best?

In terms of income, all farmers experience disparities depending on their specialization. Market gardeners and horticulturists have the highest average disposable income (68,602 euros) among agricultural households while beef producers (38,060 euros) are the least well off, far from the average for the profession which rises at 52,400 euros. But among farmers, only a third of the household income comes from agricultural activity, the rest corresponds to the spouse’s salary and possible additional activities (lodges, etc.). These differences linked to the nature of the activity are perceptible on a geographical scale. An INSEE survey on the situation of the profession in 2018 concludes that “agricultural income is lower in livestock farming areas than in crop production areas”. Occitanie, where the recent wave of discontent among the French peasantry began, thus presents the lowest median annual standard of living for agricultural households. Conversely, farmers in Île-de-France are doing the best. Agricultural households, however, find themselves more exposed to monetary poverty: 18% of them live below the poverty line (13,000 euros per year for a single person in 2018), compared to 14.3% for the entire population. population.

4. Free trade. France winning or losing?

The free trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur is no longer in sanctity at the Élysée. On several occasions in recent weeks, Emmanuel Macron has shown himself reluctant to sign it as is. At stake: a reduction in customs duties between the EU and a group of South American countries perceived as a threat. Our agricultural trade balance, however, shows a largely profitable balance (10.3 billion euros in 2022), which should encourage us not to fear the multiplication of international trade. Winegrowers and cheese producers could thus find new outlets and emerge winners thanks to the competitive advantage linked to quality signals. “The trade agreements signed by the EU are generally favorable to it, but this is not always the case for all sectors,” analyzes Tancrède Voituriez, researcher specializing in globalization at the Institute of Sustainable Development and International Relations. example, to export more of its services, the EU has a growing tendency to sacrifice its agriculture.” In agricultural sectors where cost is a central element of the act of purchasing, it is difficult for France to be competitive, due to the lack of a production model as extensive as that of its competitors. Beef, whose production is decreasing (-4.3% in 2022) while its consumption remains stable (+1% in 2022), could be weakened by these agreements which would allow Brazilian production, the second largest in world, to establish itself on the French market. To protect all French products, one of the solutions regularly put on the table is the insertion of mirror clauses. A process that would make it possible to impose on signatory countries the adoption of standards, particularly environmental standards, equivalent to ours.

5. Organic farming. Can it impose itself on consumers?

In the opinion of all its stakeholders, organic is at a crossroads. Its recent strong growth – 10.7% of the agricultural area used in France was cultivated organically in 2022, compared to only 3% in 2010 – has been hampered for two years by a crisis in demand due to rising prices. As a result, the government objective of 18% of organic areas in 2027 appears unattainable and 2024 promises to be the first year where “the balance between arrivals and departures of organic-labeled farmers risks being negative”, indicates Philippe Camburet , the president of the National Federation of Organic Agriculture. According to him, the slump experienced by 16% of French farmers took root in 2017, when the State decided to stop its aid for maintaining organic farming. “The market, which was buoyant at the time, should have allowed us to stand on our own two feet, but the current inflationary crisis is unprecedented.”

In 2022, products labeled AB (organic farming) represented only 6% of French food purchases, far behind Denmark’s 13% (the highest share in the world). For Laure Verdeau, the director of the Bio Agency, the observation is simple: “For twenty years, we only took care of supply, we will now have to take care of demand.”2 Ossified by a private market dried up by the rise in prices, the sector could nevertheless have other outlets if the Egalim law was respected. In fact, since January 2022, it has imposed a rate of 20% organic products on the canteens of schools, hospitals and other public institutions. For now, this supply is capped at 7%. In an emergency, Gabriel Attal promised 50 million euros to help the 60,000 organic farms, or 833 euros on average per farm. “This does not even represent the price of a tractor tire, deplores Philippe Camburet. We are farmers, we do not ask for alms.”

6. Pesticides. Does France spray more than its neighbors?

The cornerstone of intensive agriculture, the use of phytosanitary products is at the heart of the discord between environmental defenders, the government and the FNSEA, the majority agricultural union. If the pause of the national plan to reduce the use of pesticides (Ecophyto III) announced by the executive aims to obtain a lull, it is above all the last act of a failure which dates back to 2009. In its first version launched under Nicolas Sarkozy, this plan aimed to reduce the use of phytosanitary products by 50% by 2018. Fifteen years later, their use has, on the contrary, increased by 9% nationally according to the association Future generations. France was the 9th largest consumer of active substances in the world in 2021. However, when compared per hectare, its consumption (3.3 kg/ha) of pesticides places it in the average of its European neighbors, far behind the Netherlands (10.82 kg/ha), Cyprus (9.24 kg/ha) and Italy (6.11 kg/ha).

The discontent among some farmers does not relate so much to the reduction objectives as to the way of calculating it. “Apart from tonnage, no two (European) countries use the same indicators,” explains Christian Huyghe, scientific director at the National Research Institute for Agriculture in a parliamentary report. However, a common calculation method is not a panacea according to Aude Vialatte, research director in agroecology at the Dynafor laboratory: “Whatever the indicator, it will only be a witness to the evolution of practices and not the engine of change. of our agricultural system because the loss of biodiversity it causes poses a systemic problem.”

7. Farmer. A disappearing profession?

The figures leave no doubt: the French farm is emptying its workforce. In fifty years, the number of farms in mainland France has decreased by 76% (1,588,000 in 1970, compared to 390,000 in 2020). Encouraged at the turn of the 1960s by the consolidation of plots, productivity gains and the entry of French agriculture into the globalized market economy, this agricultural exodus has today reached a critical point. In fact, half of French farms are managed by farmers over 55 years old and, by 2030, more than five million hectares of land – or nearly 20% of French agricultural land – will change. hand. However, if fewer and fewer children of farmers are ready to take over the family farm, the peasant vocation is emerging among people not from the agricultural world. In recent years, they represent 60% of project leaders in certain chambers of agriculture, but their installations face two major problems: access to land and debt. In twenty years, the fixed capital (equipment, buildings, land) of a farm in France has increased from 173,000 to 275,000 euros on average. Promised for the first quarter of 2024 by the Minister of Agriculture and Food Sovereignty, Marc Fesneau, the Orientation Pact for Generational Renewal was postponed following the agricultural revolt at the start of the year. This text aims to help the new generation settle in our countryside.

1) Definition established in 1996, during the World Food Summit organized in Rome by the Via Campesina peasant movement.

2) September 21, 2023, during a round table at the Tech & Bio trade fair, in Valence (Drôme)

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