The futures of Agriculture
Michel Fosseprez is the president of InVivo which is the leading agricultural cooperative group in Europe. With its diversified businesses (seeds, agro supplies, storage, markets, animal nutrition and health, distribution) InVivo is a driving force behind the anticipation and adaptation of agriculture to the new demands of the market, consumers and citizens.
“Tomorrow will not be like yesterday. It will be something new and will depend on us. It is not so much a question of discovering it as inventing it”. This quote from Phénoménologie du temps et prospective (The phenomenology of time and futurism) by Gaston Berger1 sums up the pragmatic prospective vision of Michel Fosseprez in his reflections on the future of agriculture.
Therefore, in order to respond to the challenges linked to the outcome of the WTO negotiations, the reform of the CAP, demands for quality, food security and respect for sustainable development…we must invent new schools of thought and new frameworks for action.
But as Paul Valéry wrote, “we enter the future looking backwards”. Because tomorrow is the prolongation of today, we are tempted to believe that it will be similar. The study of the future has not yet been systematically undertaken!
We thank Michel Fosseprez for kindly accepting to participate in a study of the future of agriculture. What follows are the three key elements of his analysis.
1. Agriculture will be one of the strengths of tomorrow’s Europe!
It is false to assert that European agriculture is responsible for the absence of other integrated European policies, notably in the area of research. If European construction could be explained only by budgetary aspects, France and the Netherlands would not have rejected the European constitution.
On the other hand, accepting the dismantling of the only European integrated policy comforts those who call for a weakening of Europe. Since it was agreed that the budget of the CAP should be reduced, have you seen any projects for an integrated policy on research? No, and I don’t think we’re moving in that direction!
If I say that agriculture will be one of the strengths of Europe tomorrow, this goes beyond the higher priority of food supply and security for two main reasons:
- agriculture is a source of energy,
- agriculture is a factor in the ability of our territories to compete.
> Agriculture is a source of energy
Every country is aware of the shortage of fossil fuel resources (mines, oil wells…) but only some of them have started developing the alternative energy sources provided by agricultural products (sugar, oil seeds, starch, animal fat…) Production of biofuel, ethanol, and biomass should enable us to reduce fossil fuel consumption and hydrocarbon pollution!
On a global level over the last two years, the use of grain in the manufacture of biofuels has increased by 30 million tonnes a year. Two references enable us to understand the importance of this figure:
-this volume is more or less equivalent to annual wheat production in France,
-half of this new energy was produced by the United States.
Agriculture is viewed by the United States and Brazil as strategic for consolidating supplies of energy resources of agricultural origin. So it is not the time to lower our guard concerning these products, all the more so in that thirty years from now Europe will still be importing energy products!
> Agriculture is a factor in the ability of our territories to compete
We can reinforce the competitiveness of our territories by placing farms at the heart of our regions because their activities have a dynamic effect on services and industry.
Producing locally also reduces the logistics necessary for importing agricultural products, which is a source of savings, notably in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
The low price of gasoline has promoted relocation. High fuel prices will favor relocalization.
We tend to forget in our calculations two parameters: external jobs created by farms and the savings in transport and energy consumption. Sustainable development starts with avoiding heavy logistics!
If tomorrow French and European farmers were reduced to niche agriculture, do you think that the food industries will maintain their sites in Europe? Or will we witness a new wave of relocations towards Brazil, Argentina…?
Confronted with these challenges, we must not give up and admit defeat! We cannot begin to imagine the gains in productivity that we can still make today on our farms! We must, like other sectors of the economy, identify the factors that can improve the revenues of farmers and maybe even question some of our farming methods!
2. In a few years time, Frenchmen and Europeans in general will have a different image of their agriculture. Let’s hope it won’t be too late!
Both scientific progress and European regulatory constraints have enabled farmers to work more carefully. It is important to recognize the progress that has been made and not let the outdated image of the farmer-polluter become written in stone!
Concerning the question of the responsibility of farmers for pollution, our members of parliament should return to the field and we should stop spreading demagogy about farmers working better in the 19th century. How can we assert such ideas based on data that was not even measured back then!
The more farms are industrialized, the more they adopt scientific and strict methods that avoid waste. Farmers can no longer afford to throw away fertilizers and other inputs!
Sugar beet farming, for example, has improved yields in tons of sugar per acre from 20 to 30% while cutting in half the use of nitrogen fertilizers!
Scientific progress is such that even our parents who are still farmers no longer understand how we work today!
Finally, on the question of image, we must also recognize that farmers could have communicated better with the public at large about their profession! I think the fact that agriculture was for many decades a sector that was protected and regulated by politicians who did not encourage farmers to communicate.
We therefore have a lot of work to do and I hope that WoAgri through its different initiatives in favor of a new economic model, its proposals for world governance and a rating agency will contribute actively to change the image of agriculture!
3. Producers of agricultural products will gradually organize themselves on a global level with the aim of achieving more viable exchanges!
When there are fewer organizations on state level, the volatility of prices will increase and, correlatively, the risks for companies will be greater! And this is the reason why, in the coming years, we will witness reinforced organization of producers of agricultural products. To conclude, I think that we must not be afraid of “organizing the supply of agricultural products in order to move from a production culture to a market culture” that will be able to take into account a large number of parameters such as the sustainability of exchanges between nations which is one of the conditions of the solidity of international relations.
Look at the energy sector that European and American policy-makers have liberalized! The firms are merging year after year because the stakes linked to energy are strategic. And a European energy policy is anxiously awaited by operators and by everyone who fears political tensions with the countries that export fossil fuels!
Agriculture is just as strategic for a country’s independence as energy. We must be aware that political voluntarism will be proportional to the capacity for organization and lobbying of producers.
This analysis is based on the recognition that the disparity of power between the competitors involved is such that the “invisible hand” cannot regulate the market to ensure its optimal operation.
We need a gradient in the current setting up of globalization and this need is even more urgent for Africa! As Maurice Allais wrote in 19992 in one of his articles “the total liberalization of exchanges…is only possible and desirable within the framework of regional bodies that group together countries that are economically and politically related with comparable levels of economic and social development”.
We need a minimum of organization by continental blocks so that local farmers are not subjected to the unpredictable effects of globalization!
In Africa, the moment we restore local agricultural production, we bring new dynamism to the region concerned.
Imagining that we are going to develop economic growth in African countries through commercial exchanges (and therefore imports) is an illusion! Yet this is one of the basic hypotheses of the Carnegie economic model currently being used in the WTO negotiations!
Alain wrote: “As long as we have not understood the link between all things and the relation between causes and effects we are overwhelmed by the future”. Futurism is attentive to causes. Therefore it liberates us from fatalism.
This is the work of analysis and invention that we are carrying out at WoAgri in order to give back to farmers the freedom to create their future!
1 Philosopher and man of action (1896-1960).
2 Nobel Prize in economics.