France is looking to dramatically overhaul its agriculture sector with a $120 million investment aimed at boosting the country’s protein crop production. The EU’s largest crop grower says the objective is to gain more control over its food supply and cut its heavy reliance on soybean imports.
The plan would double total protein crop area within 10 years, reducing France’s reliance on imports by an estimated 10 percentage points. Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie said the main goal is to “regain some of our food sovereignty” but acknowledges that France is clearly targeting “soybean imports coming from the American continent.” As he explains, South American countries are the main origin for soy-based proteins in the EU. France was the largest EU importer of soymeal in the July 2019 to June 2020 season at 2.2 mmt, of which 1.95 mmt came from Brazil. Total 19/20 soybean imports came to 658,000 metric tons.
Under the new strategy, a 40% increase in protein crops would amount to roughly an extra 988,000 acres of land to be harvested by 2023, the farm ministry said. Among the crops that would be encouraged include soybeans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas. The country will also encourage production of alternative proteins, such as insects for fish farming. Expanding output of domestic protein crops will also make the livestock sector more competitive, Denormandie said. France is one of the EU’s top meat producers and relies on soy imports to support it. Currently, France only covers about half its protein crop needs with domestic production.
In the big picture, France’s total soy product imports are a small drop in the global bucket but the move is part of a much larger story that could have more broad impacts. Part of the motivation behind France’s new plan is concerns over soy purchases from South America and controversies surrounding Amazon deforestation, particularly in Brazil. Relations between France and Brazil have severely deteriorated over Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s plans to allow development of agribusiness and mining in the Amazon.
France has actively opposed concluding a $19 trillion trade deal between the EU and the Mercosur bloc of South American countries due to environmental issues. According to the EU ambassador to Brazil, the Mercosur agreement is now on hold as the members await the South American country’s concrete actions to combat deforestation that is blamed for massive fires in the Amazon rainforest in recent years. Data by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) just released new data that shows deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has surged to a 12-year high in 2020.
Brazilian soybean producers say their crop is not responsible for the troubles in the Amazon. University of Maryland professor Matthew Hansen said, there were practical reasons the large soy companies were unlikely to be responsible. “If you’re a big soy producer, there’s so much intensification around the larger agro-industrial farms … you don’t want fire around,” he said. According to Hansen, most of the crop expansion is not happening in the Amazon rainforest biome. Environmentalists also take issue with the Trans-Amazonian Highway, or BR-230, which runs through the Amazon forest. The project was started back in 1972 but work to build the road is still ongoing. Some say that the timber industry, illegal loggers, and even cattle ranchers are the bigger culprits.
Conservationists argue that, while much of the soybeans that flow from Brazil are produced on land cleared many years ago, there is no way to guarantee soy product shipments are not linked to recent deforestation or habitat destruction. In the early 2000s, another period of international outrage over fires in the Amazon pushed the Brazilian government to implement a national action plan to deal with deforestation. It was considered extremely effective until about 2015 when funding for monitoring was cut due to a deep recession. It’s fallen further to the wayside since Bolsonaro was elected in 2018.
Keep in mind, it is outraged consumers that have been making a lot of the noise over Brazil’s current environmental practices. Governments and businesses seem to mostly be following their lead on the issue. So regardless of what the true statistics might be, it’s usually the belief and ultimately demand from consumers that determine the direction these things take. I find this interesting and wonder if Brazil will be able to keep clearing more land to meet global demand for soy or will the pressure from Climate Change and Clean Energy eventually stop their growth? (Sources: Bloomberg, Reuters, Independent, MongaBay)