How the Ukraine war has impacted the French agrifood sector

The war between Russia and Ukraine has revealed France's dependence on foreign countries, a dependence which is particularly strong in the agricultural sector since Ukraine and Russia have become major exporting countries in just a few years. [Melanie Hobson]

This article is part of our special report Food sovereignty and the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has impacted almost every aspect of France’s agrifood sector. EURACTIV France took stock of the multiple impacts of the war on the sector and responses so far.

Since the start of the war, energy and raw material prices have soared, highlighting France’s dependence on foreign countries, particularly in the agricultural sector which has heavily relied on Ukraine and Russia exports in the past few years.

Energy

The price of fuel – essential to agricultural activities – has skyrocketed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of February, with the price of a barrel of oil topping $100.

“A tractor can consume between 150 and 200 litres per day and a combine harvester between 250 and 300 litres”, Gérald Duwer, a farmer at Plessis-Placy, told the regional newspaper La Marne (Grand Est). Prices have reached as much as €1,200 per cubic metre.

It is the same story for gas.

“Before COVID-19, a tonne of gas would cost €680. Now it costs €1,000, but the worst is diesel, which has risen from €650 a tonne to €2,400,” Philippe Rauly, another cattle farmer in the south of France (Vignon-en-Quercy), told newspaper La Dépêche.

Between fueling tractors with off-road diesel, heating greenhouses with gas, ensuring ventilation, lighting, and providing electricity for the animals, energy costs are now through the roof.

According to the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME), “a farm consumes an average of €7,800 per year in direct energy, including €5,100 in fuel and combustibles indexed to the price of oil.”

Animal feed

Animal feed has also become expensive as Russia and Ukraine account for a large share of the world’s wheat and maise exports, 30% and 20% respectively.

This has hit France and Europe’s livestock sectors hard as cereals and plant proteins form the base of livestock feed.

“The production of pigs and poultry, which are fed with grain, is a bit more affected and more rapidly, even if it is difficult for the moment to be precise in terms of figures. For cattle, it’s different: the basis is fodder and grass, especially in spring when the animals are about to go out”, said Jérémy Decerle, MEP and cattle farmer in Saône-et-Loire, told EURACTIV in an interview.

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Fertilisers

Meanwhile nitrogen, one of the most commonly used fertilisers for growing wheat, now costs almost €800 per tonne, whereas it usually fluctuates around €200.

This is because a quarter of nitrogen fertilisers used in Europe come from Russia which has announced that it is suspending sales abroad, causing prices to increase by 300% compared to last summer. Meanwhile, European production, which is extremely dependent on Russian gas, is struggling to compensate.

“There are crops that do not require fertilisers, such as beetroot and green beans. But others, such as wheat, are very demanding in terms of nitrogen. Without using nitrogen, you only get a third of your yield from wheat. For potatoes, maise and rapeseed, you get half the yield without using nitrogen,” farmer Gérald Duwer told newspaper La Marne.

Wheat prices 

The price of a tonne of wheat is at a record high, rising from €150 to €330 per tonne compared to 2021.

As one of the top producers of wheat, this trend could have been expected to benefit the French. However, with 2021 seeing a 70% rise in the price of main cereals on international markets, producers decided to sell their stocks then, leaving little to sell now.

Besides rising prices, the cost of production has also increased considerably; French Agriculture Minister Julien de Normandie told broadcaster France Inter on 15 March that because fertilisers and energy [prices] have also exploded, profitability will therefore be affected, he said.

The next few months may be relatively smooth for French cereal farmers, but the real problems will begin in the coming months, particularly when sowing in September. The situation could become complicated if fertiliser prices remain high and wheat prices fall.

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Member states have joined forces to call for an EU-wide plant protein strategy, which they say is needed “more than ever” in light of the war in Ukraine, but the European Commission is currently unwilling to play ball.

Is sovereignty the solution? 

France has always argued that food sovereignty is the way to go for the agrifood sector, but this has taken on a whole new dimension since the war in Ukraine began.

“The strength of our agricultural model is that it is independent, we are sovereign from a food point of view. There is no risk of shortage,” the agriculture minister told France Inter, despite the fact there will “inevitably” be an increase in prices.

To address this, the government presented a “resilience plan” on 16 March, saying it will reimburse 15 cents per litre of petrol as of 1 April, and provide €400 million for farmers.

The measures, which have been long-awaited by the agricultural sector, are mainly aimed at tackling the rise in energy and raw material prices.

Extending beyond France’s borders, French President Emmanuel Macron also announced a new solidarity initiative to mitigate the upcoming food crisis in a press conference after the NATO summit on Thursday (24 March) and after talks with African Union President Macky Sall.

According to the President, the initiative, called FARM (Food & Agriculture Resilience Mission), will be similar to the ACT-A initiative led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

We have to “take responsibility for producing more”, Macron said, insisting that this will be done “while respecting our standards and rules.”

EU leaders gave their nod to FARM in a last-minute addition to the agrifood chapter of the European Council’s conclusion, which says that supporting food security and agriculture in Ukraine and the most exposed third countries will be the initiative’s core objective.

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Fallows and plant proteins

In a bid to increase production, the European Commission has taken the decision to exceptionally allow the 4% of land devoted to non-productive elements and areas, including fallow land, to be used productively for 2022.

The French Minister proposes to “use this land to produce proteins, these plants which have an incredible environmental contribution: they fix nitrogen [into the soil] and reduce greenhouse gases, which means that we don’t have to use fertilisers”.

The decision was welcomed by the EU’s farming sector, but it sparked concern among environmentalists, who have warned of the negative consequences of allowing fallow land for cultivation.

For instance, 28 environmental organisations, including Greenpeace France and Génération Futures, sent a letter to Macron denouncing the use of the war in Ukraine to promote a “productivist agriculture”.

“Besides humanitarian emergencies, hunger is not a matter of production but [a matter of] distribution. One-third of the world’s production is going to waste,” they warned.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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