The president of the main farmers’ union, the Fedération Nationale des Syndicats d’Exploitants Agricoles (FNSEA) Jean Michel Le Metayer called for “a pause in agri-environmental measures” and the suspension of new measures. For French speaking readers, the (short) video is here.
The Ministry of agriculture seems sympathetic with this position, even though Nicolas Sarkozy has recently positioned himself as greener than his predecessors, with initiatives under a framework law called the “Grenelle of the environment” and a carbon tax (it turns out that farmers should be exempted from paying this tax, eventually). The French minister Bruno Le Maire apparently said a few days after that, indeed, a revision of the agri-environmental measures (AEM) was necessary and that it should start with an inventory of the provisions adopted throughout the Union according to the newspaper Le Figaro. On January 13 Le Maire unveiled a proposal for a new agricultural law to be discussed by the Parliament with little apparent concern for the protection of the environment.
The idea of suspending agri-environmental measures is bizarre, given that they are voluntary measures that are highly appreciated by farmers in some regions, providing often a third or more of the farm incomes in mountainous regions for example. So what did the FNSEA president actually mean? After some inquiry, it seems that he actually used the term “agri-environmental measures” for CAP jargon ignorant journalists. He was not in fact targeting the AEMs, i.e. second pillar measures, but rather the GAECs (Good Agri-Environmental Conditions, i.e. a set of technical constraints that farmers needed to respect in order to receive the Single Farm Payments, under Pillar 1, part of what is sometimes known as cross-compliance), as well as “any element of regulation that imposes environmental constraints such as the Nitrate Directive, or national measures under the new Grenelle law framewok” (FNSEA sources). Le Metayer argued in the interview that because of low prices and low incomes, farmers could not afford the ever growing stream of environmental regulations.
To FNSEA’s defense, some of the constraints imposed in 2009 turned out to be ill-designed in some regions. For example, farmers had to plant intermediate crops between harvests so as to keep soil covered and reduce nitrate leaching. In some areas, the lack of rain when these crops were planted resulted in extra costs without any environmental benefit. However, the FNSEA position sends an awkward signal regarding farmers’ image in the public opinion, while water pollution with nitrates makes headlines every summer. More worryingly, Le Metayer’s demand shows how much the the anti-environmental stance is widespread among the mainstream French farm lobby (another farmer’s union, the Coordination Rurale runs perhaps an even more anti-environmental program than the FNSEA). The FNSEA is highly representative and about to win again a majority in one of the main instances that co-manage the agricultural sector with the government in France. Only a minority of farmers belonging to the left wing Conféderation Paysanne seems in favour of a greener CAP, but their position regarding market regulation makes them hardly credible in the European debate (they favour a system of generalized quotas and a complex set of coupled payments restricted to small farms). A fringe of enlightened entrepreneurial farmers, the Société des Agriculteurs de France is open to produce public goods as much as wheat if the CAP pays them for that, but this is more a think tank than a powerful union.
It is hard to make predictions regarding the future behaviour of France as far as the coming debate on the CAP is concerned. With France becoming a net contributor to the CAP, the unholy alliance between the ministry and agriculture and the ministry of finance to defend large CAP budget is about to end. The former minister, Michel Barnier, used Health Check flexibility to reallocate 1.4 billion euro of Single Farm Payments towards the extensive grass-fed livestock sector. This has turned the powerful cereal producers against the government. Given that farm incomes have decreased much more than the EU average in 2009, the Ministry of agriculture can hardly afford more radicalization of the farmers, and his apparent scorn for environmental causes is perhaps tactic. However the historical aversion of the FNSEA for the environment has been particularly effective in the past. France will certainly resist any greening of the CAP in the future.