Despite significant state aid, the French meat sector is losing ground against other European countries which are also in the Eurozone. Indeed, it’s the European market which has caused the deterioration of France’s position, and not globalisation, China, or other emerging economies.
No matter which sector we look at – poultry, pork or cattle – French meat farmers are in difficulties compared with their European competitors.
– The French pork market : Production is markedly down, from 25.5 million pigs a year in 2000 to 21 million in 2016. Over the same period, it went up in several other European countries. In 2000, France and Spain were producing pigs at the same rate, whereas today Spain is producing 46 million pigs a year. France is now a net importer of pork products. The sector’s competitiveness has been eroded due to high costs and lack of investment.
– The French cattle industry : France was the biggest European producer of beef in 2015: 1.49 million tons compared with Germany’s 1.12 tons and the UK’s 0.9 tons. 79% of the meat consumed in France was also produced there. Imports are essentially European. However, the average income of cattle farmers is among the lowest in the farming sector and is projected to decline steeply. In 2014, a typical cattle farmer’s earnings after tax were 22% below the average over an extended period (2000-2013).
– The French poultry sector has also seen a drop in production over the last decade. France used to be the second biggest exporter of poultry in the world, but today it imports 40% of the poultry it consumes. The country has a trade deficit with other European countries in terms of both volume and value, and this deficit continues to deepen. The majority of French imports come from other European countries, with far less coming from non-European countries like Brazil or the USA.
Why are we seeing such a serious deterioration in the French meat sector?
We will look at the two main factors behind the decline: Le refus français d’une industrialisation de la filière viande, d’où des économies d’échelle insuffisantes.
France’s resistance to the industrialisation of its meat sector, and hence insufficient economies of scale: France has always supported family farms but the international meat markets are high-volume markets where price is the determining factor. Unlike the French domestic market where quality is highlighted by labels (red label – farm quality) and constitutes a competitive advantage, on the international market, price is key. While Germany has positioned itself as a producer of cheap and standardised meat products with an “industrial” image, France has a “gourmet” image and premium products. Unfortunately, at this stage in its development, the international meat market, whose growth is being powered by emerging countries, has little interest in quality. Cost is therefore the strategic variable for success on the international markets, so the French sector is paying the price for high costs and an absence of economies of scale.
In the pork production sector, the average size of a pig farm in France is between 1,000 and 2,000 pigs, as against Denmark and Holland, whose farms average 2,000 to 5,000 pigs. Moreover, between 2000 and 2010, the average size of a pig farm has grown by 98% in Denmark, by 37% in the Netherlands, by 29% in Spain and by only 16% in France. Finally, German abattoirs often exceed 50,000 pigs slaughtered annually. In France, what is needed is far fewer abattoirs and comprehensive modernisation.
In the beef and lamb sector, France is likewise suffering from the small size of its farms. The lawsuit taken against the only French farm with 1,000 cows (ultra-modern farm with a giant facility to produce energy from cattle waste via a methanizer and fitted with solar panels), shows how hostile French public opinion is towards industrialised farming.
In poultry production, French farms are far more numerous and also far smaller than German ones: German, Dutch and British poultry farms are the biggest in Europe, with an average volume above 60,000. In France, more than half of all poultry farms have a capacity of between 1,000 and 10,000, because of the importance of quality and origin labels (Red Label, organic, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), whose product specifications limit the size of buildings.
With farm sizes which don’t allow for economies of scale, and with labour costs well above some of its European competitors, the French animal agriculture sector is in great difficulty and is losing market share.
An avalanche of costly production standards and over-regulation compared with European norms
Stringent regulation is an indisputable factor in the economic difficulties facing the French meat sector. (2)
Often complicated and sometimes incomprehensible, these regulations place a very heavy administrative burden on farmers. A Senate report estimated that an average farmer spends 15 hours a week on office work. There are two main reasons for the relatively high cost of these production standards in France.
First and foremost, farms in France are, as we have seen, smaller than in European competitor countries. They therefore don’t possess the human or financial means to assimilate and implement these standards. Second, regulations often change in this sector, environmental standards are more and more exacting and require significant investment.
What does the future hold for French meat farming?
European farming is no longer just a sector regulated by the Common Agricultural Policy, but a competitive sector. In order to develop French meat farming, there are two possible strategies:
– Strategic development of a quality-oriented farming sector : How can we find enough outlets for a high-end product with strong export branding to allow small farms to survive with high costs? There is a model in the French wine sector where prices are, on average, twice as high as the competition, and yet which still hold their own. This “high-end” strategy could save French farming. However, it will involve considerable investment in marketing and the international distribution chain.
– Strategic development of intensive, low-cost farming : How can production costs be reduced? By heavy restructuring, and the elimination of uncompetitive “small farms”. Massive investment would also be needed to create ultra-modern farms, with state agencies fostering fully automated mega-farms – a far cry from today’s situation.
Is there a middle way? Xavier Beulin, former president of the FNSEA (the French farmers’ union) has estimated that investment to the tune of 6 billion Euros will be needed “to develop a third way between industrial farming and diversity, high-tech and diversified farming, organic and robotic farming”.