Environmental Performance of Agriculture in France

In a wide-ranging report on the environmental performance of agriculture across the globe, the OECD says France could do better. 987

As anyone who has visited France will soon appreciate, agriculture is at the core of the economic and social fabric of the country. Agriculture occupies over half the land area of France. Whilst only 3% of the French population are employed in agriculture, there are many millions employed in the food processing industry. France is one of the largest food exporting nations in the world. Most of the large-scale farming of France, for both crops and livestock, is located in the North, whereas the South of France is characterised by smaller farms whose produce is more heavily influenced by the Mediterranean climate. The OECD acknowledges that, since the beginning of the decade, France has made a greater effort to develop more sustainable farming practices, and their efforts are reflected in the progress that has been made in relation to the eco-system. One of the key challenges for France is water pollution, a high priority for the EU Commission who have brought a succession of legal actions against France for failure to implement EU Directives. Under EU plans, all water must be of an agreed ‘ecological’ standard by 2015. Agriculture is responsible for the vast bulk of pollution into surface water in France, and is a major source of groundwater pollution, with pesticide contamination of water widespread. Whilst the risk of contaminated drinking water is rare, following severe protests from the EU Commission, the French Government are having to invest enormous sums into water treatment plants to meet environmental requirements. The OECD report points out that the farming fraternity are meeting very little of this cost and French farmers also receive subsidised water. Agriculture’s share of the annual water tax is only around 6%, whilst it consumes around 80% of the water supply, and receives 10% of the investment aid from the water agencies. As the OECD reports states, ‘subsidised water pricing does not provide incentives to conserve water resources’. In some regions there is now growing conflict for access to water resources between farmers and other users. In the North and West of France, where the intensity of farming is high and production has risen, ‘problems of soil erosion and water and air pollution are acute’, says the OECD. On the positive side, there are decreasing levels of pesticides, which are lowering pressure on the environment; ammonia emissions from agriculture have remained stable, and there has been a reduction in the level of greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, the OECD is critical of the diesel fuel subsidy granted to French farmers, who pay around only one-seventh of the rate paid by the ordinary consumer. The impact of agriculture on biodiversity in France has been more mixed. Over half the farmland is now classified as having a special importance for wildlife. The area of farm hedges also doubled from 360,000 to 610,000 hectares in the decade to 2002, mainly because of scheme of assistance that remains in place. Conversely, over the past decade, France has lost 3,000 hectares of wetland to crops, and the protection afforded to bird species is the worst record amongst the EU 15. The present government now seems set on a path of stronger environmental regulation, but this has probably as much to do with bludgeoning from the EU Commission as any ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion. Over the past decade, France has received a series of reprimands for its failure to transpose EU Directives into national legislation, and it is only the power of the French lobby in the EU that has prevented more draconian fines from being imposed. Notable recent measures by the French Government have included strong controls on GM crops, the banning of around 50 pesticides considered a danger to public health, and a commitment to 20% organic agriculture over the next 20 years. There are also more controls on water use, allied to good environmental management. The Government has also passed a new law on environmental responsibility that enshrines the principle of ‘polluter-pays’, although there are many voices complaining that a minimalist approach to the adoption of this EU Directive is being taken. With the Common Agricultural Policy up for a complete overall in 2013, the French Government see the need to impress the EU of their environmental credentials. There are huge financial risks to France if the subsidies it receives from Europe are drastically reduced by the CAP review. Whether they will go far enough, and just who will pay for the creation of a more sustainable French agriculture, remains to be seen.

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