Coronavirus puts French agricultural production centre-stage

"What this pandemic reveals is that there are goods and services that must be placed outside the laws of the market," French President Macron said.

In France, the coronavirus crisis has put the agricultural sector back in the spotlight as concerns persist about the transport of food and seasonal shortages of farm labourers. EURACTIV France reports.

Put to the test by society’s high expectations about the evolution of the agricultural production model, the relationship between the French and agriculture is undergoing a radical change in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The government has been publicly thanking employees in the agri-food sector for keeping the French food supply going.

“Health and food are the two main concerns of our fellow citizens. Eating is fundamental, and when everything seems to go wrong, everyone measures it at its true value,” Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire underlined in a public letter.

“You, the employees of cooperatives, SMEs and agri-food industries, are an essential link in this supply chain. It is you who provide quality, safe, traceable food, whatever the conditions imposed on us by health protection measures. The French realise this, today more than ever,” he said.

And in his speech to the nation on Thursday (12 March), President Emmanuel Macron recalled the status of agriculture as a fundamental good, just like health.

“What this pandemic reveals is that there are goods and services that must be placed outside the laws of the market. Delegating our food, our protection, our ability to look after our living environment to others is madness. We must regain control of it, […] The coming weeks and months will require breakthrough decisions in this direction. I will make them,” the president said.

While general containment in France has triggered a rush on grocery products such as pasta and occasional shortages on the shelves, the issue of supply and the continuity of the food production chain from ‘farm to fork’ has become a major political concern.

Agricultural associations are reassuring the French.

“You can rest assured that, in addition to the care staff, you can also count on the farmers who are still in business to ensure production from farm to fork,” the Young Farmers of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, a region in the southwest of France, wrote on Twitter.

The same goes for France’s main agricultural union, the FNSEA, which recalled that “farmers are part of the national effort and put fresh produce on the French table every day, without risk of shortage”.

While the risk of shortages is ruled out by both politics and the agricultural world, many questions remain about how to ensure French production in a period of general confinement.

“If the shelves of certain retail businesses may be temporarily empty, solely due to the behaviour of certain customers, all professionals have reaffirmed that stocks of food and basic necessities are sufficient to ensure the supply of the French population for several weeks,” according to Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume.

Exceptional provisions

A number of decisions were made to allow farmers to continue their work. For example, shops selling farm supplies and farm equipment maintenance and repair were given the possibility to open their doors to the public until 15 April, so as not to hinder the smooth operation of farms.

As a further accompanying measure, the period for declaring aid under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been postponed to 15 June instead of 15 May, following a request initiated by Spain and Italy.

Concerns about seasonal employment

However, certain challenges will emerge, in particular the issue of seasonal employment, of which the agricultural sector is a major consumer.

“As harvesting begins and spring crop planting has begun, employing farmers are extremely concerned about borders closing. We fear that the need for labour on farms will not be met and that production will be lost,” the FNSEA said in a statement.

Seasonal employment, particularly of foreign workers, allows the required extra work to be done during harvest periods. And the closure of borders declared by the EU and France could make it difficult to recruit a workforce often coming from Spain or even Morocco.

Another pitfall is the transport of goods. The agri-food logistics chain should be maintained in order to allow the transport of goods, the transport ministry said, notably by keeping open petrol stations and other rest areas for heavy goods vehicles.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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