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France pushes for more factory farming in food U-turn

AFP
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France pushes for more factory farming in food U-turn
Pigs at a farm in France (Photo by BERTRAND GUAY / AFP)

France is urging its farmers to produce more cut-price meat in a major U-turn on factory farming, with inflation hammering demand for organic pork, beef and chicken.

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Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau told a big agro-industry gathering on Tuesday that "we have to admit that we must work on the entry level" end of the market.

"Animal welfare issues only work if we find someone to pay" for high quality meat, he insisted.

The comments seem to signal a major shift in government thinking after President Emmanuel Macron shook France's powerful intensive farming lobby, soon after coming to power in 2017, by saying it was time to "stop production, whether of poultry or pork, which no longer corresponds to our tastes or needs".

The huge industry has been under intense pressure over animal welfare and the environmental damage it causes, particularly in the western agricultural powerhouse of Brittany, where Fesneau made his speech.

Green algae from nitrates in fertilisers and waste from the region's intensive pig, poultry and dairy farming have been linked to  a number of deaths on its tourist beaches.

But Macron's wish to steer Europe's biggest beef producer upmarket appears to have foundered, with 11-percent food inflation pushing shoppers to snub organic for cheaper meat.

Can't afford quality

Only "30 percent of French people now have the means to pay more for quality", compared to half the population six years ago, said Pascale Hebel, a consumption analyst for data consultants C-Ways.

With Macron's office now stressing the need for "food sovereignty" and reducing imports, the country's biggest intensive farming groups feel the wind is turning their way.

Despite bids to cut meat consumption, the French remain stubbornly carnivorous, eating 113 kilogrammes a year, almost twice the global average.

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"Our goal is the reconquest of standard production," said Gilles Huttepain, a top executive at poultry giant LDC and one of the leaders of industry group Anvol.

With one in two chickens eaten in France now coming from abroad, "we must build 400 new standard (intensive) chicken houses a year to take back the market from imports", he added.

Under pressure from government, supermarkets and animal welfare groups, France had almost turned its back on intensively farmed eggs, with only one in four coming from chickens reared in cages.

'Turning back clock'

But poultry farmer Yves-Marie Beaudet, who heads the egg industry group CNPO, said many of his colleagues now regret the shift as sales of low-cost eggs soar.

"We cannot become like Switzerland, which went so upmarket that its agricultural sector is now just like a fairy tale," said Huttepain.

France remains, however, an agricultural superpower. As well as being the European Union's biggest beef supplier, France remains its second biggest milk and third biggest pork producer.

With only one percent of their production organic, French pig producers -- who had been under pressure to change their intensive ways -- now feel justified.

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"Our problem is that for consumers it is about price, price, price," said Anne Richard, of their lobby group Inaporc.

"Maybe our resistance back then wasn't all that ridiculous. People who invested in organic now find themselves stuck," she said, as the agribusiness watchwords have gone back to volume, competitiveness and economies of scale.

"We are turning back the clock," warned dairy farmer Mathieu Courgeau, a head of the umbrella group Nourrir (To Feed), which is pushing for a rethink of the food and farming industries.

Ditching the push for quality and continuing to "do what we have done since the 1960s, to produce cheaper and cheaper no matter what the hidden social and environmental costs... is completely counter to issues we are facing", he said.

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