French Agriculture and the 51st Salon de l’Agriculture

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This year is the International Year of Family Farming, a UN scheme that aims to ‘raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas’. The idea is to refocus the minds of policy makers on the issue of family farming and place it back at the centre of agricultural, environmental and social policy making. There is a recognition that policy makers need to understand the situations of family farmers more acutely for it is the individuals that make up these families who also make up the largest farm network in the world – the network of the small farmer. This network is rapidly decreasing in size which is a worrying prospect for the future of farming, hence why the scheme to focus this year on the issue is so important.

With small farmers at the focus of debate this year’s Salon de l’Agriculture (International Agriculture Show, Paris) will be a particularly prominent event. It opens today and runs until 2nd March. More than 4000 animals will be in attendance as well as their owners and a whole field of officials and judges as well as, of course, the public. Last year nearly 700,000 people attended the show over its 9 days; a statistic that would make most British agricultural show organisers very jealous indeed. It is a showcase of family farming and one of the world’s greatest agricultural events. However, one cannot help feeling that whilst the show’s image has remained constant through the years the reality of French agriculture is quite different.

As Peter Crosskey has written on the Sustainable Food Trust’s website:

‘‘From a land of six million peasants in the 1960s under General de Gaulle, the past half century has seen the number of farms drop to about half a million. Within the space of two generations, rural populations have both shrunk and aged as children moved into towns to follow less demanding career paths, with more regular hours.

As the size of holdings rose, hedgerows disappeared from arable landscapes to ease access for bigger machines. Partly in response to growing capital requirements, sharing equipment through cooperatives is common: every second French farmer is a member of at least one cooperative.

As well as empowering collective capital, the largest French farmer-owned cooperatives are huge vertically-integrated food processing businesses, operating abattoirs, packhouses and even household name food brands, often staffed with wage labour rather than cooperators.’’

It appears therefore that French agriculture, whilst retaining a strong peasant element, a success compared to many other countries throughout the world, has changed and the image has not caught up. French agriculture, like agriculture elsewhere is in reality largely industrialised, caught up in an unfair and complicated food processing chain and without nuance regarding its effects on the French countryside. So many environmental problems are caused because of a distance between the owner of the farm and the land itself. With peasant agriculture you don’t have this. The focus is not on short term profits but on longer term sustainability, a key issue in agriculture today and something that the International Year of Family Farming should hold at its pinnacle. I hope that the issue is discussed at length and debated widely at the 51st Salon de l’Agriculture. The politicians will no doubt be present at this great event. The farmers need to use this opportunity to sell themselves not just to the public, who have always been in love with the image (if not the reality) of French farming, but to the politicians. If real change is going to be made lobbying of Europe will have to be sustained.

The incoming Common Agricultural Policy was a disappointment for many groups, no matter what their stance on land management. There was an opportunity to be truly radical in the mix up but this opportunity was missed. The age of sustainable agriculture is not yet with us but hopefully the educational aspects of events such as Salon de l’Agriculture will reframe peoples’ mindsets and open their eyes to the realities of the future food crisis.

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