Agriculture

France: Epicentre of the ‘Malbouffe’ Crisis

France is the largest agricultural power in the European Union. UNESCO has promoted its gastronomic heritage. And yet it is at the intersection of two of its agrifood firms that the most recent scandal of globalised ‘malbouffe’ (junk food) has erupted: lasagnes containing Romanian horsemeat, travelled via brokers in Holland and Cyprus and ended up in the deepfreezes of a Swedish firm in the UK. The scandal is all the more shocking when we consider that that Spanghero, the company accused of selling mislabelled horsemeat, comes from an agricultural cooperative based in a good food paradise – the Béarn and the Basque Country regions of France. Behind these scandals, there is a long process of degradation of French food, resulting from the dynamic of the liberal and productivist system in crisis. France is extremely representative of this crisis, which has taken the form of a food crisis in the countries Global South, and a health crisis of ‘malbouffe’ in Europe. How on earth did we end up here?

The industrialisation of food

At the end of the Second World War, France rebuilt its agricultural system along the lines of US agriculture: mechanisation and fixed specialisation between cropland, “sugar plants” and breeding. The old mixed farming unit was broken. The 1992 Blair House Agreement between the European Union and the United States condemned Europe to import protein rich feed (soybean), which, mixed with corn, became soymeal, the basis of cattle feed.

The result? Croplands, with more and more fantastical yields, absorb staggering quantities of water, energy and chemical fertilisers. Livestock areas pollute the whole environment with a tide of unusable nitrate-rich manure, all topped off with a fog of pesticides that are carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic to reproduction.  Cancer rates in these areas are equivalent to those of people living in heavily industrialised regions like the Ruhr Valley. The prevalence of Parkinson’s disease among famers who handle pesticides is twice as high as the national average. This widespread pollution now affects all consumers, despite the warnings of whistle blowers who face fierce denials and repression from representatives of the ‘agricultural profession’.

The industrialisation of agriculture, like all of the previous steps in the history of rural France, was managed by the ‘profession’, which for centuries has enjoyed considerable clout in French politics. The young modernising and productivity-focused farmers of the 1950s often formed cooperatives and jointly managed this mutation in cahoots with the State, at the expense of the majority of famers and at the price of a violent rural exodus.

With the arrival of the ‘neo-liberal’ 1980s these cooperatives evolved into ‘normal’ (i.e. carnivorous) agrifood businesses. Meanwhile, food distribution is concentrated in a few globalised supermarket chains that retain a dominant market position and are able to impose excessive industrialisation and fix prices.

This monopoly-holding agrifood bloc has profoundly marked French diplomacy regarding the European Union, leaving it ready to sacrifice all for a Common Agricultural Policy that assures large subsidies not to working farmers, but for volume of food produced. This policy certainly assured Europe’s food security and a reduced cost of food, but at the price of high dependence on imported energy and protein. At the cost, also, of ‘malbouffe’ and its hidden costs to public health. At the cost too, finally, of over-production, initially contained by export subsidies that were as ruinous for European finances as they were for the farmers of the Third World, until the 1990s, when the total amount of subsidies were frozen at a set level for each hectare of European land. This is the astonishing model that initiated, from 2006 onwards, the food component of the global crisis of liberal productivism. 

The industrialisation of agriculture, like all of the previous steps in the history of rural France, was managed by the ‘profession’, which for centuries has enjoyed considerable clout in French politics.

Food in the crisis

France is a good example of this. Firstly, as in the rest of the world, urbanisation has devoured good agricultural land: a landmass equivalent to the size of one French department is covered in concrete every seven years.  Then the remaining shrinking surface area is threatened by extreme climate incidents that are themselves on the rise (the intense heat wave of summer 2003, the once in a thousand years storms that have decimated French forests, etc.). Finally, the remaining usable agricultural land is torn between four necessary uses: the FFFF conflict or the “Food-Feed-Fuel-Forest” conflict. Production of ‘food’ for human consumption vies for first place with animal ‘feed’, and producing animal protein needs ten times more space that producing plant protein does. ‘Fuel’ accounts for bio-fuels, a productivist reaction to the climate and energy crisis. In France, wheat, corn and rapeseed are increasingly diverted into the production of fuel for cars. The most endangered use of land is for ‘forest’ use – which symbolises the protection of bio-diversity. In fact, France is unable to enforce the Natura 2000 European program at all.

Finally, like in the rest of the world, food waste has reached 40% in France. Food in France is discarded mostly at the agro-industrial and retail levels (to conserve optimum appearances and to simplify inventory management) and at the consumer level (by over-purchasing in the supermarket, poor menu design in canteens, the lost art of leftovers, etc.). Of course, the country remains such a food-exporting giant that the downward trend of its per capita food production has not caused famine! But, as in the United States, the poorest are finding that their income no longer allows them to purchase healthy food.

At the end of 2011, according to a CSA poll, three-quarters of the French population had the feeling that their purchasing power had declined in recent months. As a consequence, 33% of them had considered reducing their food budget, mostly by choosing discount products, those that grabbed their children’s attention: various highly-processed ‘minerals’, packaged in garishly bright colours, laden with salt, sugar and fats which add flavour and are addictive. Hence the acceleration of obesity across all social classes, and the macabre cortege of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancers that accompanies it.

In reality, the obesity epidemic is the expression of the industrialisation of food, and the persuasive force of the food industry and supermarkets (TV ad campaigns aired at primetime). Government propaganda in favour of fruit and vegetables has only reduced its impact in the top 10% of high earners. One may wonder whether for the 90% of ‘willing victims of malbouffe’ it is an economic necessity or cultural fact. It is probably both.

Even before the beginning of the crisis, sociologist Christine César showed that if it were possible to eat a perfectly balanced diet in France for €3.50 a day, minimum wage recipients could only spend €2.60 and, rationally, prioritised the most urgently needed items: carbohydrates (bread, pasta) and fats that provide energy, but do not provide enough to build their bodies. A study on the link between obesity and supermarket selection (from the most ‘middle class’ to the most ‘discount’) shows a strong correlation between low cost and obesity in all classes, except for university-educated women, who frequent discount supermarkets and still feed themselves wisely.

The social inequalities of food-related ill health of are not purely economic in origin. Admittedly, all things being equal, ‘organic’ food is more expensive. But it suffices to reduce excessive meat consumption to create balanced and healthy organic menus for the same price. The food crisis is not a direct product of poverty; it is the product of a deadly system of food production that manipulates consumer behaviour and habits to the detriment of their health.  

The health crisis

Some studies estimate that 30% of cancers that could be avoided through better diet, 25% for avoidable cardiovascular diseases and up to 66% of diabetes. In 2007, there were 2.5 million diabetic patients, an increase of almost 40% on the 2001 figure of 1.8 million. Health care repayments for diabetic patients amounted to 12.5 billion euros, or an increase of 5.4 billion relative to 2001. They alone represent 9% of global health insurance expenditure. Each year, health insurance expenditure for the care of these patients increases by about one billion euros.

According to the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2010, deaths attributable to ‘malbouffe’ have now surpassed those who die from hunger.  But the cost of ‘malbouffe’ on social security expenditure is not a negligible one in the sovereign debt crisis. The cost of diabetes care represents 0.8% of French GDP. For care related to obesity: 2% of GDP. And for the far more conventional health costs related to alcohol: 2.4% of GDP.  This is while each successive austerity plan struggles to get government deficits (including social security) below 3%!

A study on the link between obesity and supermarket selection (from the most ‘middle class’ to the most ‘discount’) shows a strong correlation between low cost and obesity in all classes.

Resistance

The expression ‘malbouffe’ was born from the convergence between consumers who have revolted, farmers who have resisted the model (farmers in small farmers unions – like the Confédération paysanne and Coordination rurale) and environmentalists. The most emblematic expression of this movement was José Bové! But today the issue of  ‘malbouffe’ has invaded all forms of media. Not a week goes by without the release of yet another documentary reporting on food waste or the abnormalities of the agrifood system.

A new development: the whistle blowers – the journalists, doctors, and agronomists – having published several books or alarmist documentaries now publish advocacy tracts on how to ‘get us out of this mess’. The recipe is always the same: a return to ‘organic’ agriculture, which presupposes that on the same budget that we will consume less meat: after all vegetarian lasagnas are better and just as nourishing! In sum, to return to the good old days of the classic French meals so beloved by UNESCO, even to perhaps change the menu to a Cretan one (which will include, never you fear, two glasses of wine…) or to an Indian one – with meat reduced to the role of a condiment that will accompany cereal or vegetable centered meals.

On the consumer’s side, the fight has taken three different directions.

  1. Direct initiatives, like the Associations for the Preservation of Peasant Agriculture (AMAP). This is about linking up with one or two nearby famers to get weekly fresh, organic, seasonal food ‘baskets’ delivered directly to your home by the producer.
  2. A call to local cooperatives to serve only organic food in schools. This is 100% the case in a small town like            (whose Mayor is a member of the Green party) and 40% the case in a mid-sized city like Auxerre, but which would of course be much more difficult in a megalopolis like Paris, where each remaining piece of agricultural land has to be defended tooth and nail from property developers. There, the demand for ‘local’ agriculture must be put into perspective where demand is such that the entirety of the structure of agricultural production that needs to be addressed.
  3. In line with the introduction of organic produce, the provision of vegetarian alternatives in large-scale canteens for ethical, environmental, philosophical and even religious reasons should be catered for.

 

And at this moment in time, the very possibility of resolving the FFFF conflict exists: feeding humans, while feeding fewer animals, conserving our biodiversity reserves and making the earth itself contribute by the capture and storage of solar energy, in the guise of next generation biofuels.

The response of specialists, like those from Négawatt who are attempting to solve the climate and energy crisis by leaving both nuclear and oil based energy behind, and those from the Afterres project that are evaluating the possibility of France providing sufficient food and energy for itself, and even the same reply of the Academy of Science in September 2011, in Demography, Climate and Global Food which posed the same question on a global scale, is unanimous. Yes, the earth can feed humanity – be it on a French, a Euro-Mediterranean or global scale, all the while capturing all of the energy that it needs. But this requires a war on waste, a change of food habits, and a sophisticated form of mixed farming, ecological and intensive agriculture, with up to six crops on the same soil, a link with trees/crops/livestock etc.

Here we enter into the realm of science fiction. But it is a fiction that we have little time left to transform into reality.

Newsletter

Sign up to the newsletter for handpicked highlights of articles, interviews and translations published each month.

Select the language(s) for which you would like to receive notification :

Select the theme(s) for which you would like to receive notification :

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.