France offers angry farmers emergency aid

BBC News – Wednesday 22nd July

France has been rocked by dramatic protests this week as livestock and dairy farmers expressed their outrage and desperation at falling prices. They blockaded motorways with tractors, tyres and shopping trolleys, while other roads were blocked by burning tyres and straw bales. Roads around Mont Saint-Michel, a popular tourist site, were covered with animal manure, while pallets were set alight outside one supermarket. Action took place within supermarkets too, with meat aisles being covered in yellow warning tape reading ‘Meat from nowhere’, and with some farmers even herding their pigs into the stores.

This is in response to farm-gate price cuts by retailers, which have brought more than 22,000 livestock and dairy producers to the brink of bankruptcy. Farmers feel their efforts are not getting a return, and instead they have to survive on subsidies. But even with subsidies, farmers earn very little. Annual beef farm earnings were only €18,300 (£12,800) on average in 2013, falling to €14,500 (£10,100) last year. Dairy farmers say they are being paid €300 per tonne of milk (equivalent to about 20p per litre), but need at least €340 per tonne simply to break even.

On Wednesday, the French government announced a package that included €600 million of aid for farmers, restructuring of farm debts, improved producer prices, better contracts, a boost to productivity and help to rebuild markets. But this has met with a mixed reaction from farmers, and protests continued throughout Thursday, spreading further south and targeting Lyon.

The government is not unsympathetic. Prime Minister Manuel Valls said, “The demonstrations of the past days reflect the anguish and distress that we have seen for some time. We want to respond to this anguish.” Following a meeting with farmers’ leaders in Dijon, President Hollande went on French television to call for supermarkets, food processors and abattoirs to help increase prices. But farmers are sceptical that any real change will take place.

Parallels can be drawn between France and Britain, with the UK dairy crisis in particular being similarly caused by supermarket price wars. France is renowned for its large-scale protests and British farmers may be feeling inspired to take similar action. A meeting of dairy farmers in Somerset on Wednesday saw talks of strike action in what Farmers Weekly described as “the strongest call to arms yet”. But France has a tradition of direct action and strong agricultural leadership and it remains to be seen how farmers in Britain will respond.

But what is really behind this problem? A large part is undoubtedly caused by supermarket price wars, but politicians also pursue policies to keep the cost of food as low as possible without taking into account the wider impact this has on the environment, rural communities or society as a whole.

SFT chief executive Patrick Holden says:

We normally talk about unholy alliances but in this case it’s a sleepwalkers’ alliance of the government and the multiple retailers, neither of which are aware of the devastating consequences of their actions in driving food prices below the cost of production. Both claim to be acting in farmers’ interests, but both seem unaware they are destroying the infrastructure for the production of safe and healthy food in future. What is perhaps most concerning is that traditional livestock farmers, upon whom most food production in Britain has depended, have become so demoralised that that they are now accepting their fate, while their leaders do little more than urge the largest of them to hang on and wait for a change of fortunes.

Prices have also been pushed down by foreign competition and changes at a global level, with reduced Chinese consumption and a Russian ban on EU food imports due to the conflict in Ukraine exacerbating the situation.

Ten percent of French livestock farms are now facing bankruptcy and the UK is not much better off, having lost half its dairy farms since 2004.  But this problem does not just affect France and the UK. Across the EU-27 in one year alone, 2012-2013, the number of dairy farms fell by 6.5%.

Some people may feel this is beneficial, but it is having the opposite effect to the one most campaigners would want. There has been a corresponding increase in the number of very large dairy farms where cows are kept on concrete throughout the year and more high energy feeds are used. At the same time, smaller and more traditional livestock producers are being driven out of business, while the only ones able to survive are those who keep more animals and intensify their production methods.

Climate change brings new crops to Canadian farms

Climate Central – Thursday 16th July

There has been much talk in recent years about the impact of climate change on agriculture. It is predicted to have a significant impact on what we grow and where we grow it. There is clear evidence now that crops are moving north as temperatures rise. Canada is one country that stands to benefit – at least in the short term. Extreme winter cold is becoming rarer and its growing season is extending. It is now producing crops that had previously been impossible or too risky to grow in its cooler temperatures. Increasingly, we may see produce such as peaches and grapes marked ‘Country of Origin Canada’. Plant hardiness zones are marching north and minimum temperatures are rising. Canada is starting to grow maize and soya in areas where previously it could not.

You may think this is not such a bad thing – especially for Canada. But, as yet another indicator that the planet is warming, this upside has a big downside lurking beneath it. Just because some places are expanding their agricultural production, it doesn’t mean they will escape another feature of climate change: unusual and extreme weather and greater temperature variation from year to year. Paul Bullock, a University of Manitoba professor who is studying the impact of climate change on agriculture in Canada, warns that “Variability is what kills us in agriculture. When one year is this way and the next year it’s totally the opposite, how do you adapt to that? That’s extremely difficult to do.”

Can meat actually be eco-friendly?

Grist – Wednesday 15th July

Grist’s Nathanael Johnson takes on the great meat debate in a three-part series with the eponymous title ‘Meat’. It kicks off with the question of how ecologically sound it is to eat meat – a hotly contested topic. In 2006, the FAO published a report on livestock’s environmental impact, which was titled, tellingly, Livestock’s Long Shadow. This laid the groundwork for the argument that ruminants are bad for the planet because they contribute significantly to both greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity decline. Nearly ten years on, a growing number of people are contesting the narrowness of this FAO analysis and arguing for the vital importance of livestock’s role in agriculture to be more widely recognised. Without the bigger picture, it is easy to think of cattle as the scourge of the earth, dragging us all down towards worsening environmental degradation and irreversible climate change.

Johnson, as always, is good at picking out the pros and cons of our more complicated food issues. He considers the FAO report without getting tied up with it and acknowledges that a plant-based diet is inarguably more efficient in terms of energy use – “… it’s always going to make more sense to grow grains for people to eat rather than for animals to eat”. However, this is not the only thing to consider.

When you step back and look at a wider metric of sustainability, it circles back to the importance of animals in agriculture. At the heart of Johnson’s argument is the idea that to be sustainable, farming must be mixed, and mixed farming means animals. It’s a point that the SFT has been hammering home for some time with special emphasis on the role of ruminants in preserving the health of soils.  That’s a critical point to remember, with soils across the globe becoming severely degraded.

Johnson’s final point is also a sound one: the current level of meat production and consumption, particularly on an industrial scale, is unsustainable. We don’t need to eat as much meat as we do – some 184 pounds a year if you’re an American – but giving up meat as a key protein in our diet would be disastrous in a range of ways.  In Johnson’s opinion, meat should be redistributed better between the developed and developing world, in addition to a drop in consumption to nearer 50 pounds per person a year. A completely meat-free world is not the answer.

How Kerala is making the most of organic farming revolution

The Economic Times – Sunday 19th July

As concern for pesticide residues on food has grown, more and more farms in the Kerala region of India are turning to organic farming. The growing impact of pesticide exposure was brought to the fore in 2014 by the release of actress Manju Warrier’s hugely successful film How Old Are You?, which exposes some of the issues relating to agrochemicals and food safety within the political and socio-economic themes of the storyline.

For years Kerala has imported fruit and vegetables from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. During the period of near dependence on imported produce, cancer rates in Kerala surged. This led the state to carry out a field study on pesticide residues on the food coming in, particularly from the state of Tamil Nadu. What turned up was evidence of a high usage of pesticides and chemical fertilisers – notably endocrine disruptors. One researcher involved in the study commented, ‘‘The picture that emerged from our studies was rather grim.”

Awareness of the effects of the exposure has generated a movement across Kerala towards homegrown and organic production and the state is now producing 70% of its produce. The government has promoted home growing by distributing grow bags to the public. Additionally, large areas of land are being converted to organic production and it is anticipated that the state will be fully organic in the near future. It’s a pretty remarkable transformation and just shows that the transition to greater sustainability is not that difficult once there is political will.

Arizona and California are ignoring the science on water

Grist – Friday 17th July

The politics of water in the United States’ driest region is leading down a dark road that could see water resources drained to unsustainable levels. Arizona and California have been involved in a ‘double counting’ of their water sources, pretending that groundwater and surface water are two separate and distinct stores: the problem is, they aren’t. Overusing surface water – in this case, rivers and streams – means that the underground aquifers are not properly replenished. The two states have been busily drawing on both sources without a thought for their interconnection. However, recognising this and regulating appropriately would mean even more severe water cuts, and no politician is brave enough to suggest that at a time of severe and devastating drought.

So the politicians’ current tactic is to stick their heads in the sand and continue with business as usual. It’s easier not to recognise that the states have even less water than they say they have. This wilful ignorance is in keeping with a long history of poor water management in the region. But refusing to account for how much water there actually is on the surface and in the ground makes realistic management of this critical resource impossible. It’s the ultimate in short-term thinking and it will make the long-term drought even more impactful than it already is. The details of the political machinations that created this shocking situation are not to be believed.

That said, it is very easy to criticise the situation in a region now in its 4th year of drought and 14th consecutive year of below average precipitation. Don’t forget how quickly a water shortage crisis can develop even in well-watered Britain when a single dry summer follows a dry winter.

Photograph: American Centre Mumbai

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