A strategy to reduce French imports of plant proteins is finally on the table with 100 million euros from the country’s recovery plan allocated to the production of plant proteins.
This amount should allow “to build our food sovereignty” by “greatly reducing the importation of proteins intended for breeding”, according to a government press release.
European production has weakened
Rapeseed, soybeans, sunflowers, beans, legumes: breeders use many vegetable proteins to feed their animals and ensure their yields.
The EU imports nearly 17 million tonnes of crude protein each year, according to the European Commission’s 2018 report on the development of plant protein from the bloc in the EU. Of these imports, 13 million are soy-based, the protein content of which makes it an essential food for pig, cattle and poultry farms.
If France is one of the European countries which produce the most oilseeds – in particular rapeseed and sunflower – its independence is far from assured.
In 2018, France imported three million tonnes of soybean meal. And although around 400,000 tonnes of soybeans were grown in France, almost 600,000 tonnes were imported from Brazil, the United States and Argentina in particular.
French farmers find it difficult to compete with prices and genetically modified seeds capable of withstanding the most powerful insecticides from American countries.
“Argentinian soybeans, Canadian and Indian lentils and American soybean meal are far from meeting European specifications”, said Jean-René Menier, farmer from Morbihan and elected member of the French Federation of Oilseed and Protein Producers .
“In France, we cannot afford to sell our crops when we already follow extremely strict production rules,” he added.
Flurry of national sovereignty
Developing a European culture of vegetable proteins does not lack advantages such as potentially increasing national sovereignty, protecting the environment and health. But such an enterprise is gigantic and Europe is lagging far behind.
In addition, Europe’s dependence on US imports is historic, rooted in long years of trade negotiations.
After World War II and before the creation of the World Trade Organization, American countries agreed to specialize in the production of plant proteins, while Europeans focused on cereal crops in the context of the GATT negotiations. on tariffs and trade.
Although the cultivation of rapeseed and sunflower gradually developed in the 1970s, Europe is still tied hand and foot to the American giants.
The gap widened further with the Blair House accords of 1992, when it was agreed that EU land devoted to soybeans, rapeseed and sunflowers would be capped at 5.1 million hectares, which is well below the needs of the continent.
Far from a green revolution
A global pandemic later, European states realized the risks posed by dependence on foreign imports. During the informal Council of Agriculture Ministers on September 1, French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie stressed the need for “European food sovereignty”, which must go through “securing supplies and the development of the strategic autonomy of sectors such as vegetable proteins ”.
Pending a European strategy, the French plant protein plan has been well received.
“We are delighted, because we have been waiting for it for a long time”, recalled Menier, who proposed to establish contractual elements binding the farmers of the plains of central France to the Breton breeders. “They produce and we buy. Everyone would be delighted, ”he said.
The development of a national and non-GMO production of vegetable proteins could relieve the farmers who combine economic difficulties and environmental challenges. But Samuel Duglas, a cattle breeder in Ille-et-Vilaine, doubts that it is really an environmental measure.
“Reducing our foreign imports is not a bad initiative in itself. But for whom are we going to produce these proteins of plant origin in France? For intensive farming without soil, which needs exceptional protein contents to achieve huge yields, ”said Duglas.
“Reducing imports of vegetable proteins is great, but if it’s to encourage a production system that ruins our water and our land, without even ensuring a living wage for farmers, I don’t see much” , he added.
It has been eight years since this Breton farmer stopped buying protein of plant origin.
The farmer’s 50-hectare meadow allows his herd of 75 cattle to get the protein they need for lactation. With the help of the Adage 35 association, which campaigns for sustainable and autonomous agriculture, Duglas switched to organic farming in 2010, even if his “real transition” is only a switch to all-grass.
“It has totally changed the way I work. I no longer grow corn, wheat and no longer use pesticides. Of course, at first the transition can be scary. This is where the Adage has been very helpful. It allowed me to train and meet other farmers who could advise me, ”he said.
This breeder, who has lived about forty kilometers from Rennes since 2007, has “succeeded” in reducing his milk production. From 10,000 liters per year, it only delivers 5,000 liters, without any problem.
“Of course, my returns fell, but so did my costs. I even went to one milking a day, and we are doing well on the farm, I spend more time with my family. From an economic point of view, the pasture is holding up well, ”said the farmer, who benefits from the advantageous prices of the organic label.
Regarding the government plan on vegetable proteins, the farmer is convinced that “it is not an environmental measure”.
“It reinforces intensive farming, when everyone knows that the system has to be changed. We will only get out of it if we get out of this logic of performance, ”he added.