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Low-price food products are hindering the development of agroecology

For two weeks, visitors have been strolling along the walkways of the Paris annual International agricultural fair, where they were encouraged to reconnect with their peasant – yet not so old, and sometimes long forgotten- roots. Only a week after being pointed out as the ones to blame for the major floods that paralyzed the Seine basin and without holding grudges, farmers came, as they do every year, to share and champion their passion of the land.

Of course, there is no denying that agriculture has its share of responsibilities when it comes to environmental degradation, including increasing runoff water, which is due to the deteriorating ability of soils to retain water. However, let us also not forget the determining roles soils artificialization and the disappearance of humid zones play in the matter. At PUR Projet, we believe that agroecology, agroforestry, permaculture, organic agriculture and other regenerative agricultural techniques bode well for the future as they could presumably succeed in addressing tomorrow’s challenges. Nevertheless, only once we all accept to pay the fair price for agricultural products will these techniques become the norm. As a project coordinator in France, I know for a fact that today, asking a farmer to produce milk below 30 cents a liter and pork bellow 1.30€ a kilo, and then ask that same farmer to also sequestrate carbon in the soil, while simultaneously looking after landscape integrity, and at the same time, say, absorb the excess of water that artificialized areas can no longer retain, is simply not possible.

Vineyard agroforestry system – credits: PUR Projet

As regards the price issue, a tiny ray of hope might have emerged on the horizon at the announcement of the second General Estates ever to be held since 2000 under the Jospin Government. This assembly gathered a significant amount of nutrition-related stakeholders, under the patronage of the Government, with a salient issue on the agenda: guaranteeing a fair price for farmers. Unfortunately -and predictably-, a number of distribution stakeholders played the hypocrisy card, arguing to be supporting low-income households against an increase in the price of food products deemed to be “unacceptable”.  

This perverse system which has been the result of the same old song, claiming that the price of food products need to be drove down so that everyone can have an access to cheap food, led to farmers being put on a drip. Today, they have no other choice but to sell their products at a loss -in other words to resort to “dumping”- and to bend to the rules of the European Common Agricultural Policy, in order to receive subsidies that will help them keep their heads above water.

The irony is that not only does this system kill French agriculture, but it also kills the possibility for Southern countries to somehow move towards a semblance of food sovereignty. How can it be that Senegalese chicken competes with European chicken? Since 2005, Senegal has had to introduce import quotas for chickens in order to protect small local producers, quotas that have been challenged by the WTO ever since in the name of free trade. Without these quotas, Senegalese poultry-farming is not competitive enough. Another example to name but a few, is the excess European powder milk, which, since dairy products quotas were abolished, has been dumped at the ridiculous price of 30 cents a liter in Burkina Faso, while local products cost three times as much.

Southern countries are not competitive enough to cope with such widespread agricultural dumping coming from Europe. It results in young people from Southern countries fleeing the agricultural sector and moving to the cities. By favouring the fall of agricultural products prices instead of supporting low-income households, the Common Agricultural Policy has skirted around the real issue of purchasing power.

If France wants the agriculture of tomorrow to address the sustainability stakes with which it is faced, food will need to be given back its fair value and farming its true meaning. It means integrating the totality of the activities contributing to the smooth operations of a sustainable agro-ecosystem, whether directly or indirectly productive, to the overall production cost.

One could be tempted to advocate paying farmers for the ecosystem services they provide rather than to have these activities directly included in the price of food products. Personally, I think that these services should be integrated in the price of commodities, in that they indistinctly benefit the environment and the production itself. I also think that remunerating farmers for their environmental services rather that for providing quality, healthy food, relying on sustainable and environmental-friendly processes, would amount to sending the agricultural world a blurry message. There are already more than enough institutional systems conveying a counterproductive message, according to which farmers could earn higher subsidies if they stopped cultivating lands with a high yield potential, on supposedly environmental grounds, than by cultivating these lands in a reasoned manner, following the principles of agroecology (some agri-environmental and climate measures epitomize this perfectly).

Tree planting in an agroforestry project in Le Cailar, South of France – credits : PUR Projet

With Pur Projet, we act to encourage and accompany farmers willing to implement agro-ecological practices such as agroforestry, providing ecosystem services benefitting society as a whole, just as well as they are productive and allow farmers to make a living.  

Either way, tomorrow’s fight will be to help those farmers voices be heard. Those farmers that Pur Projet meets everyday on the field and that day by day, wake up with the desire to innovate and to reinvent their profession, paying no heed to the difficulties and challenges they encounter. Whether neo-rurals, grandsons or granddaughters of farmers, handling several jobs at once, entrepreneurs or employees, they all represent the future of a new, life-oriented agriculture.

 

Emil Simondon
@Twitter

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