What Are The Main Changes In French Agriculture Since 1945 And What Challenges Does It Face Today?

1612 words - 7 pages

In the days following the World War II, France was a devastated and ruined country: 600,000 people had been killed, 10000 bridges and 1 building out of 22 had been destroyed, and losses were estimated at a fourth of the 1938 domestic wealth (Dallenne 2004, 196). As for agriculture, despite several serious damages, it was still a vital part of the French economy. At the time, the majority of the farms were small family holdings equipped with relatively archaic technical means. Over one third of the working population was employed in this sector and a farmer fed 7 persons on average. I will study firstly the main changes that agriculture has undergone since 1945 with respect notably to the farming techniques and their results, to the evolution of holdings, and finally to French regions. Secondly I will deal with the internal agricultural challenges that France is currently facing, then with those linked to international competition and lastly with some solutions that could help the sector to remain dynamic.First and foremost, deep transformations following the Second World War occurred in the French agriculture. A real 'agricultural revolution' (Pitte 2001, 121-123) converted an activity using archaic methods into a productive and high-standard one. There was indeed a sharp increase in the amount of chemicals employed such as weed killers, fertilisers, pesticides or high-protein feeds, and in the number of tractors used -from 20,000 in 1946 to more than 1.2M in 1997. In addition to that, high-yield varieties as well as new managing and productive methods imported from the USA improved outstandingly the efficiency of the branch. For instance the 1955-2000 wheat and corn yields respectively quintupled and sextupled while the quantity of milk per cow tripled. Forgetting the post-war rationing and shortages, France became the 'foremost agricultural nation in the EEC' (Gildea 1996, 104) and, after the United States of America, the second largest exporter in the world.Another major change concerns the agricultural working population and the exploitations. In many respects, the rising efficiency of the sector, a strong demand in the service industry, and an intensifying competitive environment have led to a decrease in the number of farmers and farm labourers. From roughly a third of the French working population in 1946, they represented 3.3% of the workforce in 1999 that is 1.64M people (Frémy 2002: 1484). Moreover their wage has twice less increased than the national mean over the period.Concerning the holdings, their average size has tripled while the number of exploitations has been divided by five to reach 0.8M holdings in 2000. Besides, France's agriculture has arguably become dualist. On the one hand, some holdings have turned into productive capitalist firms linked with food processing industries and mass retail distributors -a fifth of the exploitations producing two third of the national production. But on the other hand, many others -often small-sized and poorly located- have not been able to invest enough to be economically integrated and dynamic, and are consequently declining.Since 1945 the search for ever higher yields has had a major impact over the agricultural landscape. French regions have indeed specialized in five main production types: industrially cultivated cereals in the Paris Basin and in the plains of the North of France; stock farming focused on meat and milk in the West and in the mountain areas; egg, battery chicken and pork meat intensively produced in Brittany; vine in Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne and Corsica; and market garden produces and fruits in the Rhone valley and in the Mediterranean plains (Hagnerelle 1997: 126).This regional development has however not been homogeneous. In the cereal, fruit and vintage vine regions, 'agri-managers' have contributed to their economic integration into European and global markets. Yet in the South West, regions have been pushed on the fringe of economic sufficiency because of not wide enough holdings and of unprofitable mixed farming.French and European agricultural policies have strongly influenced the various agricultural changes. Under De Gaulle in the very early 1960s, measures aiming to reduce the number of farmers and of holdings lagging behind were taken and did divide the number of farms by almost two in twenty years. Besides the State supported modernisation and yield gains notably through vast irrigation schemes and road works improving the land service.As for price support, the European Common Agricultural Policy began, at the same period, to be in charge of it. During thirty years, the CAP favoured intensive and productive agriculture by guaranteeing the farmers the same minimum price 'irrespective of how much they produced, of world prices, or of prevailing levels of supply and demand' (McCormick 2005: 189). This led to economic dependency, to massive surplus that the European Community had to buy up, and to higher prices for consumers. However in 1992 the CAP underwent a radical reform based on guaranteed price reductions and since 2005 farmers receive a single income support, no matter the amount they produce. The challenge for many farmers is now to adapt themselves to this loss of European subsidies -a task arguably more complex for small farmers with narrow investment possibilities.Internationally the highly competitive environment is another challenge that French agriculture has to face -inside as well as outside the European Union. The 2004 eastward enlargement has indeed brought several cheap labour countries in the customs union in which there are no tariff barriers. Hence a country such as Hungary which exports more than 1M hectolitre of wine each year has become potentially able to rival equally the national actors and thus threatens France's wine economy. Besides Turkey's possible entry in the Union would disrupt the balance of the EU exchanges especially for France -Turkey being notably the 8th wheat producer in the world.In addition to an intra EU menace, France's agriculture has also to solve the problem set by the exchange liberalisation championed by international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Its several negotiation rounds reducing customs barriers between the United Nation countries threaten in many respects the French market. How will French farmers be able to keep competing with countries such as China where the standard of living is six times lower and where consequently a much smaller part of the produce price is dedicated to the farmer's income? The tough international concurrence worsened by the world trading conditions is arguably a current challenge for France to take up.There are however solutions to maintain the French agricultural dynamism. Firstly a quality-orientated farming, although more demanding, is on average more profitable since the competition is more restricted and the margins returning to the producer are higher. Moreover by limiting the number of intermediaries, farmers can offer quality produces that remain competitive on the food market in term of prices (Pitte 2001, 130). Thus disintermediation allows both farmers and consumers to take advantage of better produces obtained in more respectful conditions for the environment as for the human health -e.g. avoiding more groundwater to be polluted by excessive amounts of chemicals.Green tourism could also be a major income complement for French farmers. Rural areas offer indeed preserved landscapes and peaceful stays that mass tourism by definition cannot provide. Besides farmhouse accommodations are arguably a safe way to protect farmers from the uncertain evolution of the agricultural prices and from a tough competition becoming more and more global.To conclude French agriculture has dramatically changed since 1945 in many respects. From basic farming structures with relatively archaic tools, it has moved towards agri-business. Techniques, varieties, managing methods have indeed been improved in order to maximize yields. Holdings are now fewer but on average wider and better integrated to mass commercial channels. They are also much more specialised -as French regions are - and rely less on price support from the CAP since the 1990s. However these claims need to be qualified since a strong dualism exists both among farms and regions. Some are still on the fringe of economic integration because of a lack of previous investment. Consequently the numbers of farmers and holdings have been decreasing sharply -the globalisation of agricultural competition being another factor explaining theses trends. As for the challenges that French agriculture faces nowadays, the recent European changes from price support to income support incite farmers to focus more on quality rather than quantity although, once more, holdings cannot all afford such transformations. Eastward enlargement of the European Union and the intensification of world trade are also two major other challenges that could be, financially speaking, partly faced through green tourism -a potential solution for many farmers to guarantee a minimum income independently of the crops and of markets.Bibliography:* Dallenne, P. (2004). La mondialisation: genèse, acteurs et enjeux, edited by Alain Nonjon and Pierre Dallenne. Paris: Ellipses Editions* Frémy, D.&M. (2000). Quid 2001. Paris: Robert Laffont* Gildea, R. (1996). France since 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press* Hagnerelle, M. (1997). La France en Europe et dans le monde. Paris: Edition Magnard* McCormick, J. (2005). Understanding the European Union: A Concise Introduction, 3rd edition. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan* Pitte, J.R. (2001). La France, 2nd edition. Paris: Nathan Université

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