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by Gérard le Puill

Farmers: a world on the edge of the abyss

Translated Friday 23 November 2018, by Sarah Robinson

One year after his Rungis speech promising better prices, President Macron asks farmers to muddle through on their own in the face of processors and distributors. Even as rural communities are dealing with the effects of drought and are worrying about the future of the CAF.

It was the 11th October 2017 at the National Interest Market (MIN) in Rungis. Three months earlier the new President of France had established the National Food Forum. The work of its different committees was supposed to contribute to an upmarket move for food products, to a lesser usage of chemicals in agriculture and above all to better wages for farmers. These discussions were meant to facilitate the work of the parliamentarians in order for the law, planned for the spring of 2018, to enable farmers to earn a decent income from their work. At Rungis Emmanuel Macron had stated: ‘I hope that we can issue some concrete decisions in light of your work. The first is the establishing of updated contract agreements with contracts proposed by the farmers and not the buyers, which is, in my view, fundamental. We will change the law to reverse this price construction which should be able to start from the costs of production.’ This is what seemed clear to the farmers. Even if the wording of ‘this price construction which should be able to start from the costs of production’ could be exploited, ‘at the same time.’

A cold shower

It was the 9th October 2018 in the morning at the Élysée. The food law had just been passed a few days earlier and Emmanuel Macron was welcoming the only representatives of the main production sectors of beef and pigs, eggs, milk, fruit and vegetables who have been subjected to prices being too low for three years. They were received without their auxiliary representatives, the manufacturers of the food sector, who process their products, and the distributors, who sell them to the consumers.

Before this meeting even began, the communication department of the Élysée released some news suggesting that Emmanuel Macron had chosen to blame the farmer trade unionists, making them solely responsible for the difficulties they are encountering faced with companies such as Bigard in the processing of meat or Lactalis in the processing of milk. Concealing also the pressure that Leclerc, Carrefour, Auchan, Casino and others put on the SME’s of the food industry in the annual negotiation which takes place between November and February to be referenced for twelve months in these brands’ stores. That very morning of the convening of the meeting of the 9th October, the daily newspaper ‘les Échos’ printed an editorial written the night before: ‘Macron wants to be firm with the farmers,’ remarking in an objective way that ‘the most radical manufacturers have resumed their positions, leaving little if any place for anything other than survival of the fittest.’

Clodhopping MPs

A studied argument appeared in the language released to the press by the Élysée’s spokespeople which served to betray the farming sector while also blaming it. Here is a small selection: ‘We cannot be held responsible for parties which for years have not known how to structure themselves. (…) The state has done its fair share in crafting strong legislation, with tools, vision and a clear direction, in order for the farmers to be able to live fully from their work. It is time for those concerned to take it on. The ball is in their court.’

To decode this language we have to be aware that the head of state and the government have not wanted to use the figures produced each year by the Observatory of Price and Profit Margin Production of Food Products. Confronted with the bad faith of their auxiliary representatives, farmer trade unionists from different sectors hoped that the law would include these figures from the Observatory. This law was passed by a majority of senators. But the last word went to the MPs, the ‘clodhoppers’ of the LaRem group who were ordered by the Élysée and Matignon not to harm this possibility during the final vote.’

This law’s vote took place after a summer and the start of an autumn marked by drought. The grain yield is 20 to 25% lower compared to an average year. Pastures have not been growing grass for months, which increases the cost price of each litre of milk and kilo of meat which we produce from bovine or ovine meat. The suppliers of pig meat, poultry and eggs are suffering from the effects of the increase in the price of grain. Egg suppliers have shown that their cost price increased by 10% between December 2017 and August 2018. In fact the price of compound feed has risen by 16.6% between these two dates while this food expenditure represents by itself alone 60% of the cost of production. But nothing in the new law compels the distributors to take this into account and to increase the price of purchase as a result. It is enough for them to say that they do not agree with the figures produced by the breeders. The head of state has refused to allow the law to refer to the figures of the Observatory of Price and Profit Margin Production of Food Products in order to leave the distributors this possibility of challenging the truth of the farmers’ figures.

Denial of working hours

While the consequences of the drought will increase the productions costs in breeding in the long-term, the farmers will not be able to win recognition of this reality from their auxiliary partners. The president of the National Bovine Federation (FNB) of the FNSEA, Bruno Dufayet, was able to say, during the recent breeding summit in the suburb of Clemont-Ferrand: ‘We proposed the cost price taking into account our costs and aid from the Common Agricultural Policy, relying on indicators from the Breeding Institute and adding our expenses on the basis of 2 600 annual working hours. This taking into account of working hours was not accepted,’ by the auxiliary partners.

We are in a country where the processors as well as the distributors can import a limitless amount of food products from other member countries of the European Union, even from non-member countries, to drive down the prices of the animals as with various products in the domestic market. By suggesting at the start of autumn that the farmers, the weak link of every sector, can obtain remunerative prices while needing to oversell animals, for want of being able to feed them this winter, the incumbent of the Élysée has heinously betrayed them. But this is the ‘and at the same time’ so dear to Emmanuel Macron.

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