27 June 2021

In France, the debate on the future of food and agriculture just scratches the surface

The law that was supposed to make agriculture and food healthier and more sustainable

Passed in October 2018, the law “EGalim, for balanced commercial relations in the agriculture sector and a safe and sustainable food” (#EGalim, pour l’équilibre des relations commerciales dans le secteur agricole et une alimentation saine et durable) was set to: (i) pay fair prices to producers to allow them to live their lives with dignity on what they earn; (ii) improve the health, environmental and nutritional quality of food; and (iii) promote safe, healthy and sustainable food for all.

For this, among the measures included in the law, there was the obligation to take into account the cost of production and the eventual change in price of raw materials and energy used by agriculture, when negotiating the prices paid to farmers. It also included a ban on neonicotinoids and titanium dioxide.

Three years later, one can only take stock of the fact that the law did not put French agriculture on the right track for achieving its objectives. The income of many farmers remains very low, and the neonicotinoids were again authorised on sugar beets in 2020 [read in French]. 

Interviewed on French radio France Culture, on June 24, Patrick Bénézit, the deputy secretary general of the FNSEA, the French majority farmer Union, was arguing for a change in the law so that producers could be paid a fair price and not be dependent any more on handouts, as it did not take sufficiently into account the “real” production costs. He also asked for prices “to be indexed on the cost of animal feed and fuel”.

Bénézit also added that the FNSEA proposals would only have a minimal impact on prices paid by consumers (1 to 2 euros per month), provided the annual food price increase of 2% observed since 2018 was benefiting farmers and not intermediaries (i.e. mainly supermarkets) [listen to the interview in French - 4 minutes].

A narrow, faulty and off-the-mark design

No need to be an expert in food and agriculture to understand that the #EGalim law failed. It failed in its implementation, in its results and in its design.

It is a failure in its implementation as the objective to raise prices paid to farmers was not achieved and the few environmental measures it had were not fully respected.

It is a failure in its outcome, as we have already had the opportunity to report in the case of France regarding of pesticide use [read]. This conclusion may also be extended to Europe as a whole, in relation to its green transition [read].

More worrying still, is that this failure was entrenched, from the start in the design of this law, and it is likely that the new law, #EGalim2, that is being discussed now, will not address the problem either, as none of the stakeholders (government, farmers, upstream and downstream agribusinesses, large retail and even consumers) is raising the fundamental issues that need to be solved to ensure a transition towards a sustainable food and agriculture, from the social, economic, environmental and health point of view.

Which are these questions?

  1. In the social and economic field: how to secure incomes equivalent to those of workers in other sectors for agricultural producers (this was already an objective of the very first Common Agricultural Policy of what was called then the European Economic Community or “Common Market”, back in 1962)?

  2. In the environmental field: how to reduce the negative impacts of food and agriculture on the climate and on natural resources?

  3. In the field of health: how to ensure safe and healthy food for all?

Oriented by the proposals made by the main farmer Union, the debate is getting ready to consider only the “real” market costs, i.e. expenses for seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and fuel (to mention only variable costs), and leave totally aside all the costs linked to consequences of food and agricultural production (the famous negative externalities that are not reflected by the market or do not have to be paid for immediately, but later, in the future - and no one seems to care about the future!), namely climate change, soil degradation and pollution, water contamination and pollution, biodiversity loss and health consequences for consumers eating food contaminated by dangerous chemicals [read].

In short, there are few chances that proposals will be made that could lead to a more sustainable agriculture from the point of view of health or the environment. This is only half a surprise as it is well known that then main French farmer Union is very close to agricultural cooperatives, whose most lucrative activity is … to sell agrochemicals (particularly pesticides) to farmers.

As for the government, it remains a prisoner of the old principle (that goes back to the 18th century, at the time of Scottish classical economist Adam Smith) that wants that a low price of food helps to keep salaries low and thus preserves profits in sectors other than agriculture, a way to boost investment and economic growth [read, p7-11] and maintain economic “competitiveness”.

This is, of course, a very short term understanding of competitiveness, as it is preserved at the cost of changing the climate and degrading natural resources and people’s health. In other words, this is only an apparent and unsustainable competitiveness, the negative consequences of which will end by becoming visible.

This way of seeing agriculture, common throughout the world, makes that workers in the agriculture sector are underpaid almost everywhere*. This probably explains largely why poverty remains an overwhelmingly rural and agricultural, phenomenon, even if, with a growing urbanisation of global population, a new class of especially vulnerable workers has appeared, particularly in poor countries, whose visibility has become patent in times of crisis [read].

To conclude (for now)

As long as the debate around agriculture and food, and the policies supposed to guide the sector, will just scratch the surface of essential questions by limiting the perspective to what the “market” tells, there is little hope that there will be progress towards a more sustainable and safe food and agriculture.

Yet, the situation is urgent. Climate is degrading (frost, heat, drought, storms, floods, etc.), biodiversity is declining, our soils and rivers are polluted, and food-related diseases are constantly increasing. But our leaders prefer to look at the visible part of the iceberg and think in financial terms, and sacrifice our intelligence on the altar of “presentism” that gives priority to immediacy, at the expense of the future [read].

Tragically, if we remain blind and refuse to act, the looming environnemental crisis will be much worse than what we are experiencing now, with the COVID-19 pandemic.


  1. In half of the countries in the world, the revenue created per worker in agriculture is less than half of revenue per worker created, on average, in the economy. And this is not only true for poor countries, but also applies to rich countries, even in the US.


To know more :

  1. Ministère de l’agriculture et de l’alimentation, #EGalim : ce que contient la loi Agriculture et Alimentation, 2019 (in French).

  2. Mellor, J., The functions of agricultural prices in economic development (p.7-11), The Indian Society of Agricultural Economics, 1971.

Selection of past articles on related to the topic:

  1. The European Union’s challenging but imperative green transition, 2021.

  2. The real cost of food - Can the market alone guide our food systems towards more sustainability? 2020.

  3. Pesticides: an issue that poisons our agriculture, 2020.

  4. Denigrating farmers is choosing the wrong target: advocacy for French farmers, 2019.

  5. Policies for a transition towards more sustainable and climate friendly food systems, 2018.

  6. The global food crunch: myth or reality? 2018.

  7. Food, Environment and Health, 2017.


Last update:    June 2021

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