At the beginning of our food systems was the land. Panorama of a year that made us understand how nurturing nature is, and why there is an urgent need to reconcile sovereignty and the transformation of agricultural practices.
In the dirty game of war, all shots are allowed – and not just in the theater of operations. And in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, hunger does indeed count among the weapons of war wielded by the Kremlin, in the same way as energy. Russia and Ukraine are indeed among the main granaries of the world, together representing nearly 23% of world exports of this cereal, i.e. 7% of world consumption.
Hunger is gaining ground
From the start of hostilities, Antonio Guterres did not mince his words. The Secretary General of the United Nations warned against the risk of a “hurricane of famines” in African countries, even of a “collapse of the world food system”. The price of wheat then exceeded the bar of 400 euros per tonne, i.e. + 70% compared to the days preceding the invasion of Ukraine – even before Russia announced the first measures to restrict its imports of wheat and fertilizer. Because the country is also the first exporter of nitrogenous fertilizers and the second supplier of potassium and phosphorus fertilizers.
Nearly one in ten people in the world suffered from hunger in 2021 – a finding that is all the more alarming since it does not include the consequences of war
The war aggravates an already precarious situation. Since 2015, hunger has been gaining ground in the world: according to the UN’s “State of Food Security and Nutrition”, almost one in ten people in the world suffered from undernutrition in 2021 ( between 702 and 828 million individuals). A finding that is all the more alarming since this report does not therefore include the consequences of the Russian invasion of February 2022. These will weigh more heavily on an already weakened panorama: the pandemic and its impact on supply chains, and especially climate change, whose effects on agricultural yields are no longer debatable. To put it another way: every day we are moving further away from eradicating hunger in the world by 2030 – as set out in the second of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.
But the surge in food prices has other less avowed reasons… Because to the disturbances resulting from geopolitics, from the blocking of ports to the rise in the price of energy, passing by the bad harvests to be expected in Ukraine, comes add pure and simple speculation. “Hunger profiteers” who intervene on the commodity exchanges, including cereals, explained Karine Jacquemard, president of the NGO Foodwatch France, in an interview with DNA. The association has also set up a petition. The phenomenon is not new, and seizes the slightest crisis, such as that of 2008, to take advantage of market panic. These speculators have thus invested six times more in the first four of 2022 than in all of 2021, aggravating the tensions already present on the markets: the price of foodstuffs has jumped by 30% since the war, and could, according to the UN, tip 130 million additional people in acute food insecurity, for a total of 280 million.
Crisis-proof Farm to Fork
In Europe, even before war broke out, the pandemic had already put the issue of food sovereignty on the agenda – a concept whose spectrum varies, however, depending on the interlocutors, from self-sufficiency in the strict sense to the ability to a country to guarantee its food security, whatever the context. Admittedly, our agri-food system has held up despite a shock of unprecedented magnitude, but Covid-19 has revealed the weaknesses and dependencies specific to our long supply chains. Today, geopolitical tensions take the issue to a higher level: “We can no longer depend on others to feed us, treat us, inform us, finance us”, said Emmanuel Macron on March 2, 2022, in his first address to the French devoted to Ukraine and its consequences for the French. A sign of the times, since the Borne government of May 2022, the ministry is now called Agriculture and Food Sovereignty.
The geopolitical situation updates the opposition of points of view around the European strategy Farm to Fork
While France remains Europe’s leading agricultural power (with 17% of production, followed by Germany and Italy), the situation brings to light the conflicting points of view on the agricultural strategy to be adopted, in a context profound changes: on the one hand, the proponents of a ‘productivist’ line give voice against the European Union’s “Farm to Fork” strategy, like the FNSEA, the majority agricultural union, which denounces a “path of decline with an uncertain environmental impact. “And on the other, the supporters of a systemic transformation of our agriculture towards sustainable and climate-friendly models, for which precisely “agricultural productivism is the problem, not the solution”, in the words of the Confédération paysanne. Proposed by the European Commission in May 2020 and voted on in October 2021, the “From farm to fork” program, included in the Green Deal, aims in particular to reduce the use of pesticides by half, that of fertilizers by 20% and devote a quarter of cultivated areas to organic farming, with levers like set aside 4% of agricultural land. But the war reshuffled the cards, and the program is today more and more disputed.
Picked up ratatouille for La Ferme France
From a structural point of view, Ferme France is also experiencing worrying developments: massive importation of agricultural products, most of which do not meet our own production standards, decline in the number of farmers-operators on the territory… Today , we take into account 400,000 in the territory, against 1.6 million in 1982 – or 1.5% of total employment, against 7.1% forty years ago, according to data compiled by AFP. Transmission to younger generations is therefore a major challenge, with 100,000 farms due to change hands by 2030.
In the study Agriculture: challenge of reconquest of 2021, the High Commission for Planning points, among the major crises to dominate for the sector, the imbalance of our external balance – “in a colorful way, we could say that our plates are in deficit and our lenses are in surplus,” the report said. Thereby French organic production only covers 67% of national demand in volume. Another weak point is our trade deficit of almost 6 billion euros on fruit and vegetables, with a French orchard shrinking by 12% in surface area for twenty years, even though the diet of the French is becoming more vegetal and less meaty. The HCP uses “the parable of ratatouille” to illustrate its point: the five vegetables that make up this typical dish from the South of France have constituted a cumulative deficit of 650 million euros in 2019!
Is it possible to reconcile agricultural power and climatic imperative? Agriculture is the second source of GHG emissions in France
“Digital” at the service of a plural agriculture
As we can see, several seemingly contradictory issues arise in the sector. Among them, is it possible to reconcile agricultural power and climatic imperative? Agriculture is the second source of greenhouse gas emissions in France, with 19% of the national total in 2019. Without solving everything, research and technological innovation can provide answers. Digital, for example, can contribute to a virtuous transition of our systems towards agroecological models, after years of intensification and specialization. In any case, this is the point of view of Inria (National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology) and Inrae (National Institute for Agronomic Research) which, in a joint report, detail the promises of digital revolution for agriculture. This is based on different levers: abundance of data, made available thanks to sensors and communication capabilities, computing capabilities allowing the implementation of artificial intelligence, connectivity and interfaces, automation and robotization, drones and autoguiding, etc.
To benefit from these opportunities, however, it will be necessary to anticipate the associated pitfalls. Among them, the two institutes list the risk of loss of connection to nature, a digital environmental footprint yet to be quantified, social consequences, the risk of exclusion of small farms, a technological leap forward which may lead to complexity, or another loss of sovereignty – we always go back to it – whether it is digital in terms of the tools used, or food in the event of a cyberattack, for example. Be that as it may, rather than a unambiguous vision, there will undoubtedly be a need for “digital” capable of supporting a plural agriculture.
Already, AgTech is a reality: 10,000 agricultural robots are in service in France, i.e. a quarter of all robots installed in France, according to Xerfi, 46% of farmers use a GPS navigator on their tractor, 800,000 hectares of cultivation are observed by satellite to save chemical fertilizers as part of the FarmstarT project, and more than 600 start-ups are innovating in agriculture and agri-food… An ecosystem that intends to develop thanks to the launch of a dedicated label: French Agritech20 aims to bring out ten unicorns by 2030. Even if the sector has some great nuggets like Ynsect, which produces proteins and fertilizer from larvae, AgTech currently represents only 6% of funds raised by young French shoots over the past six years.