In 2014, the French government recruited cross-party support to pass a new law for agriculture, food and forestry, called la loi d’avenir pour l’agriculture, l’alimentation et la forêt (Law for the Future of Agriculture, Food and the Forest). During its year-long passage through the French parliamentary system, the law, passed this past autumn, was driven by a new-found commitment to agroecology. However, for some, the law’s aim of applying the principles of agroecology to 200,000 holdings by 2025 must mean breaking with France’s ‘productiviste’ past and its investment in increasingly intensive farming techniques.

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From the outset, French farm minister Stéphane Le Foll stressed that while his new law was about producing and consuming food differently it was, more importantly, about training future farmers differently. In September 2013, the French state employed 220 new researchers and tutors to begin teaching various aspects of agroecology to students in the country’s agricultural colleges. The aim was twofold: first, to introduce new farming techniques and methods to students – this has long been a strong point of agricultural training across the country; and second, to launch the next generation of French farmers with an informed commitment to agroecology.

A former college lecturer in agricultural economics, Le Foll turned to politics in the 1990s. In 2004, he became a Member of the European Parliament, where he sat on the agriculture committee that oversees policy-making for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Within days of his appointment as France’s farm minister in 2012, he was working flat out to save the Breton rural economy from meltdown, when the Doux poultry group went into administration with debts of more than €300 million. From the endless crisis meetings, he learned what the mountain of unpaid bills meant for poultry producers, vets, hauliers, feed mills and rural businesses. He also came to understand what a sustainable system might look like on the ground and how to avoid the inherent weaknesses that floored the Doux business model.

Le Foll has unshakeable faith in the skills and abilities of future generations to implement forward-looking strategies that move towards sustainable agricultural practice. Given the aging demographic of French farming, Le Foll underlines that, “… the crisis that we are going through requires us to put more effort [into agricultural education] to meet a major challenge and create jobs for young people in our country”. With 40% of the country’s farmers nearing retirement, France needs a large cohort of new farmers committed to restoring a landscape suffering from years of industrial farming.

It is no coincidence that the loi d’avenir was being debated last year at the same time as the CAP reforms were under discussion. If agroecology and the loi d’avenir were to stand a chance of making any headway in France, the administrative momentum of Europe’s biggest single policy had to be challenged at the same time. The fact that industrial agriculture is accounted for, differently to agroecological or organic practice has been just one source of friction in the process. After decades of measuring agriculture in terms of industrial farming standards, the current measurables are ill-suited to defining progress for agroecology.

The loi d’avenir promotes crop diversity and biodiversity as the guiding principles of agroecology, through education and research. It also invites economic and environmental stakeholders to join forces and manage resources in cross-sector groups called Groupements d’intérêt economique et environnemental (GIEE). The law marks a change in land policy, both protecting farmland from competing land uses and making it easier for young farmers to get started in agriculture. Both these aims are achieved by reorganising the regional farmland management bodies (known as SAFERs), which can intervene in land sales by compulsorily purchasing farmland that might otherwise be developed. A local SAFER also helps young farmers get started in agriculture by assigning them land from its land bank.

While the loi d’avenir is effectively a farming policy, it also insists that public concerns for agriculture be taken into account, particularly around the use of pesticides: there is widespread antipathy towards the spraying of food crops and the potential of residue to drift towards schools and houses. French agriculture is a heavy user of agricultural chemicals, which the loi d’avenir aims to challenge. The law protects vulnerable members of the population, such as the young, old and sick from exposure to crop treatments. It will do this by requiring simple measures, such as establishing hedges and posting warnings of future crop treatments in public amenities, such as schools, nurseries, hospitals and retirement homes.

The law also supports the development of alternative crop treatments, such as biological pest controls. The routine use of crop chemicals will no longer go unquestioned, and the law is the first in France to legislate cuts on farm antibiotic use.

Retailer-supplier relations are also in the remit of the loi d’avenir, which appoints a mediator to counter some of the retail abuses that have been contested in tribunals over recent years. This watchdog role covers the agricultural supply chain, marking a shift from previous piecemeal decisions that had no application beyond the case in question. The ability to set precedents, combined with a new right for associations to conduct class actions on behalf of their members has created new power to combat abuses in the supply chain. The loi d’avenir promises a more secure future for food producers.

However, the French government’s efforts to remain inclusive have led to backsliding in places. This happened most controversially in September 2014, when the minister’s hand was forced and he signed off the controversial planning application for 500 milking cows at Mille Vaches. During a year punctuated with direct action and protests directed at the Milles Vaches development, the members of the small-scale farmer’s union, Confédération paysanne (Conf’), constantly accused Le Foll of using new catchphrases to embellish an old system – for example, exhorting farmers to “Produisons autrement” (produce differently) but allowing the same industrial production alongside.

In May 2014, after a long-running series of direct actions at Mille Vaches, Conf’ members removed key components of the milking parlour and delivered them to the ministry with the repeated message that factory farming is putting them out of business. “Produisons autrement” can only happen in a variegated farming landscape, not dominated by monocultures and where all farmers can earn a fair living, the Conf’ argues. Despite the minister’s protestations that Mille Vaches is not “his” project, family farmers across France want the loi d’avenir to curb the damage that industrial farming has wreaked on the diversity of French agriculture. Small-scale farmers have to be part of the solution if sustainable farming is to have a future, let alone a place in France.

Photograph: Eola Wind

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  • John Leahy

    A quite interesting article. I appreciate & support what Stéphane Le Foll is doing as I obviously make comparisons with the UK. To support sustainability, agroecology and small farming businesses from a government minister is wonderful. I do not live in England now, but when I read your on-line UK news it is often disheartening to see e.g. supermarkets, easily deciding how much more they can squeeze the small farmer. With including your austerity, most of you are certainly going through a rough time at the moment.
    Would it not be beneficial to have similar agricultural ministerial thinking occurring with your government?