On July 20 the French government announced The State of Food, a public event which will take place from August to November 2017, bringing together all the actors in the food system, from field to plate. The challenge is to solve the general crisis of the European agricultural model, but not all actors analyze it in the same way.
Over the past decade, French and European agriculture has experienced repeated crises: health crises (avian flu, bluetongue, swine flu, etc.); economic crises due; a social crisis in France with a continuously declining number of farmers, and about 300 farmer suicides per year. At the same time, since the mad cow crisis (BSE) 30 years ago, consumers are increasingly wary of food and many are calling for an end to the use of neonicotinoids and endocrine disrupters in pesticides and to the use of antibiotics in livestock operations. Cancers, allergies, antibiotic resistance and an increase in obesity (which now stands at 17% of the population) worry the health authorities. Finally, the impact of farming on the climate puts the revision of agriculture practices on the agenda, as in terms of greenhouse gas emissions these account for 21% of the total. In February 2017, Nicolas Hulot, a former journalist and television host who had become an environmental activist, said it would be necessary to hold The State of Food to refurbish the French food system. The idea was taken up by the new President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, who appointed Nicolas Hulot as Minister of Ecological and Solidary Transition on May 17, 2017.
A good idea
The principle of The State of Food is to bring together all actors – farmers, the agri-food industry, retailers, consumer associations, environmental and animal welfare NGOs, first to exchange their points of view, and then to agree on what solutions are to be proposed to the government. Many actors are willing to talk to each other, but not all of them agree on the “menu” of the conversation.
The French National Federation of Farmers Union (FNSEA) is motivated by the urgency of the economic crisis (the majority of French farmers earned around 350 euros per month last year) and calls for a better “sharing of value” from the agri-food industry and large distributors. These three sectors have lobbied to exclude civil society organizations from this part of the negotiations. As a result, the first part of The State of Food will feature seven workshops dedicated to “the creation and distribution of value” but none on the revision of the agricultural model. These will take place from the end of August and through September 2017.
The second session, entitled “Healthy, Safe, Sustainable and Accessible Food for Everyone”, will feature six workshops to be held from early October through November.
A transversal workshop, “Preparing for the future: what investments, what technical support, what research for a greater environmental, health, social and economic performance?” aims to collect reports on the findings and proposals for action. All this is boosted by the announcement of an investment plan in the agriculture field of €5 billion over 5 years and an online public consultation.
The wide gap in expressed positions
The division into two sectors, an economic bloc and a “civil society” bloc, and the choice of themes for the workshops bears the hallmark agro-industrial lobby and their intent to dictate the roadmap of The State of Food to civil society.
Their tactic is, on the one hand, to rely on the urgency of the crisis in order to go quickly and impose their agenda on everyone. On the other hand to limit the debate at the national level by not addressing its territorial and European dimensions. The direct farmer-citizen debate is avoided and they do not want to articulate it as part of the Common Agricultural Policy.
For their part, NGOs of civil society, the Confédération paysanne (small farmers’ union), and the National Federation of Organic Farming insisted that more time was needed for a strategic reflection of this magnitude.
With the support of Nicolas Hulot, the consultation will be spread over three months, allowing mobilization of public opinion. For this reason, we demand to be able to produce according to consumer demand, to support the conversion to organic farming, to recognize and reward the environmental services provided by agriculture, and to shed light on the profit margins of the industry and mass distribution networks. We demand nutritional labeling, the banning of endocrine disruptors, food education to fight against obesity and food waste and to develop a culture of taste.
In the country of the Paris Agreement, the notable absence of an agriculture and climate workshop raises fears that intensive agriculture will not be called into question. However, nothing is certain, and, thanks to territorial initiatives (local distribution networks, collective organic restoration) and its capacity for mobilization, civil society will perhaps succeed in making the voice of reason heard, and this could yet be the driving force of an essential cultural transformation in the food system.
Gilles Luneau is a French journalist and founder of Global, an independent and investigative online magazine. He has written books together José Bové; the first, “Paysan du Monde” was published in 2002, while the most recent, “L’alimentation en ôtage” speaks about multinational lobbying in Brussels, with a preface by Carlo Petrini.