Fabrice Nicolino: in agriculture, ‘what has been done can be undone’

Intensive agriculture took off after the Second World War. [David Day/Flickr]

Fabrice Nicolino spoke to the Journal de l’Environnement about the “huge muck-up that agriculture has become”. He said it is not too late for things to change. 

Fabrice Nicolino is a journalist at Charlie Hebdo. His new book, Letter to a farmer on the huge muck-up that agriculture has become, is available from Decitre.

Nicolino spoke to Romain Loury.

You believe that French agriculture as we know it today was a product of the two world wars. How do you think it was transformed by these conflicts?

The two world wars were an accelerator. The first one not so much: the arrival of a few Renault tractors didn’t really change much compared to pre-industrial times.

The United States, on the other hand, was very mechanically advanced. We didn’t realise this in France at the time.

The real change was after the Second World War, which bled the country dry. A new generation of agriculturalists and zoological scientists came together with young farmers to revitalise old agriculture, with the backing of the political authorities at the time.

One of the United States’ objectives with the Marshall Plan was to convert war machinery for civilian use. In exchange for generous loans, the beneficiary countries had to buy American products. This was a real Trojan horse policy, which heralded the mass arrival of tractors and pesticides from across the Atlantic.

Many agriculturalists, zoological scientists and technocrats travelled to the United States between 1945 and 1955, and saw what seemed to be wonderful new techniques and technological advances.

But the process of industrialisation was not yet complete. For that, we have De Gaulle to thank. He came to power in 1958 with a vision of French grandeur and centralisation, supported by a very active band of technocrats.

Faced with this accelerating industrialisation, when did the first doubts begin to arise? When did people start asking questions?

1962 was an important date, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. The book was heavily criticised in France, particularly by the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).

This was the end of the age of innocence. The industry had become so powerful that instead of recognising that it was heading down the wrong track, it started launching disinformation campaigns. So we entered a period of mystification, which is still ongoing.

Aside from generally degrading the environment, this kind of agriculture also replaced the ‘backward’ practices of the countryside with machines. All this was done in the name of progress.

The disappearance of the peasantry was seen as a positive thing: it was backwardness itself that was disappearing. With the arrival of De Gaulle, we emptied the countryside to fill the suburbs and created mass unemployment; a problem that has ever been solved.

The number of farmers has fallen from ten million in 1945 to 450,000 today. The suburbs are full of workers without jobs. This change completely altered the face of France.

The National Federation of Agricultural Unions (FNSEA) is one of the main advocates of this model.

I find this association abhorrent. It is unbelievable to think that it could act in such a way as to destroy the livelihoods of the people it represents at such an alarming rate. All the agricultural ministers, from both the left and the right, have managed agricultural issues in partnership with the FNSEA.

The current president of the FNSEA, Xavier Beulin, is the CEO of a cereals company [Avril group] with a turnover of €7.5 billion per year. It is no wonder that he is pushing for the industrialisation of farming.

Another example is Luc Guyau, the president of the FNSEA from 1992 to 2001, who became president of the Council of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, thanks to his close links to Nicolas Sarkozy.

These are career people. They are bureaucrats who do not defend their profession, who have decided that efficient agriculture should mean farms of 1,000 cows. There is no limit to this madness, it always has to go one step further. You can’t call these people famers. I support farmers but in no way do I support these ‘agricultural holders’.

Another reason for this forced march of progress in France was the domination of the National School for Rural Engineering, Water and Forestry (IGREF), replaced by the State Corps of Bridges, Waters and Forests (IPEF) in 2009. You accuse them of having ruined the rural landscape in the name of productivity, to the detriment of the environment.

These people are responsible for all the regional directorates of food, farming and forestry, and all the public and semi-public structures in the agricultural sector. They display an extreme level of arrogance and operate with total impunity.

In the name of productivity, they have destroyed hundreds of thousands of kilometres of hedgerows and redirected streams and small rivers. From an ecological point of view, this rearrangement of agricultural land has been an utter folly.

Jean-Claude Le Feuvre, a French water expert, told me that he had taken samples from the Vilaine river basin [in Brittany] in the 1970s. He found nitrates and alerted the Breton department of agricultural, telling them they were heading towards a disaster, and that the problem was only going to get bigger.

The bureaucrats all fell about laughing and told him that the engineers would deal with it, and not to worry. Now it costs billions of euros to restore aquatic habitats from the effects of nitrate damage.

In your book you wrote that “what has been done can be undone”, and that “it is not impossible to imagine a France in 2050 that counts one, two or three million new farmers on top of those that languish in their industrial hangars and intensive farms for animal-slaves”. Does urban France really want to go back to working the land?

This is not about recreating the countryside of the past. It was a tough world, not a rural idyll. But there is no reason why country people should not have full access to the Internet. They could be better connected to the city. It is possible to imagine the villages coming back to life, rather than abandoned and empty.

To achieve this, people need to sign a pact with the small-scale, local farmers that can lead and educate them. Millions of French citizens want to eat better: the pact should assure opportunities and consideration for small-scale farmers in return. I believe we need an exit strategy from industrial farming, just like with nuclear power, over 20, 30 or 40 years.

There are no technical obstacles to this, and many people would make the change. Democratically and ecologically, we urgently need to start moving.

If there is such a left-right consensus on agriculture, where can this movement come from?

Society has to make the move. I dream of the birth of a consumer protection movement in France that will fight on health and ecological issues and organise boycotts. If we wait for a political movement, it is certain that nothing will happen.

This article was previously published by EURACTIV France

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