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is France sufficiently “independent in terms of food” to avoid shortages, as the government assures?

More than a month after the start of the war in Ukraine, theth world “is entering an unprecedented food crisis”, alerted, Thursday, March 24, Emmanuel Macron, on the sidelines of the G7 and NATO summits. Indeed, many countries depend on Ukraine and Russia, considered the “breadbaskets of Europe”, for their supply of agri-food products, particularly wheat. However, the conflict hinders exports, productions being blocked in the ports.

However, the French government wants to be “very reassuring”. “There is no risk of shortage in France”said the Minister of Agriculture and Food, Julien Denormandie, on RMC, on March 24. “We are independent in terms of food, we produce our own food”added the government spokesman, Gabriel Attal, on March 28 on LCPwelcoming this “luck”of this “luxury”. But is it so sure?

France is by far the largest agricultural producer in the European Union, notes a parliamentary information report published in December. It alone still represents around 18% of European agricultural production. The French agricultural trade balance has also been in surplus for almost half a century, note the deputies. In other words: France exports more agricultural products than it imports. The last time it was in deficit was in 1976, a year marked by a severe drought, which forced the country to import more than usual.

Excluding exports, theFrench production of wheat or corn was thus sufficient to cover French consumption by more than 150% on average between 2015 and 2019, according to FranceAgriMer, quoted by the parliamentary report. Milk, yoghurt and cheese production also covered national consumption at more than 100%. The ratio fluctuated between 94% and 100% for beef, pork, poultry and eggs. And it stood at 90% and 84% for fresh fruits and vegetables. Over this period, France was very clearly an importer of only five types of product – sometimes for obvious reasons: rice (10%), exotic fruits and citrus fruits (17%), fish (32%), soy (40%) and sheep meat (49%).

Nevertheless, “we cannot say that we are completely independent from a food point of view”, notes Christophe Gouel, economist at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (Inrae). France indeed imports about 20% of its food consumption, a dependency which has doubled in twenty years and which even exceeds 50% in certain sectors, note the deputies, citing France Strategy. “The situation has been deteriorating for several years”, point out the parliamentarians, who list a few examples. More than half of the fruit and vegetables consumed in France are imported, compared to about a third twenty years ago. Between a third and 40% of French poultry consumption depends on imports, compared to 13% in 2000. A quarter of pork consumption is also imported. And more than half of the sheep meat consumed in France is also.

But two-thirds of these French imports come from member countries of the European Union (excluding the United Kingdom), according to the study carried out by FranceAgriMer. Spain, Belgium and Germany are France’s three main suppliers, followed by the Netherlands and Italy. “For fruit and vegetables, we are very dependent on countries like Spain or the Netherlands”illustrates the economist Christophe Gouel. France’s leading non-European suppliers are Brazil and Morocco, in 9th and 10th places in this ranking.

“We depend very little on Ukraine and Russia.”

Christophe Gouel, economist at Inrae

at franceinfo

The Russia and Ukraine alone certainly represent 15% of wheat production and 30% of world exports of this cereal, recalls the researcher Sébastien Abis with France 24. But France “remains the leading cereal power in the European Union”, adds Thierry Pouch, head of the studies and forecasting department of the permanent assembly of the Chambers of Agriculture. She produces approximately 70 million tonnes of cereals each year, of which between 35 and 40 million tons of wheat, according to the parliamentary report. “Our wheat production is one third for our consumption, one third for animal feed and one third for export”summarizes the economist Bruno Parmentier, former director of the higher school of agriculture of Angers.

France should therefore not encounter any supply difficulties for wheat-based products. There is no reason that we lack bread, flour or pasta in France”, reassures Bruno Parmentier. On the other hand, the surge in wheat prices will affect us on the price level”, adds Christophe Gouel. Because even if France does not depend on Russian and Ukrainian wheat, Cereal prices are linked to the situation on the world market. Added to this is that “we are in a context of high inflation, so prices in the coming weeks will increase”, recognized the Minister of Agriculture.

“The consumer is already beginning to feel the price increase on his shopping cart at the supermarket, especially on bread, flour or biscuits.”

Thierry Pouch, economist

at franceinfo

The price of the baguette “maybe go up five to ten cents”, under the effect of the rise in the price of wheat, but also of energy, predicts Bruno Parmentier for his part. However, the impact of these increases should be relatively limited. “The repercussions of the war in Ukraine are above all perceptible on the prices of energy and fuels, which weigh more on the household budget than on agricultural prices”explains the economist Christophe Gouel.

The price of sunflower oil, of which Ukraine is the world’s largest exporter, could also rise. Nevertheless, “it’s not a very expensive oil, so it’s not going to affect much” consumer wallettempers Christophe Gouel.

On the other hand, the consequences promise to be heavier for French agriculture, “highly dependent on access to fertilizerscore Bruno Parmentier. These products come largely from Russia, leading exporter of nitrogen fertilizers, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “For this year, we had fertilizer stocks. But the year 2023 risks being more complicated if the conflict gets bogged down”, worries Thierry Pouch.

France is also highly dependent on vegetable proteins, such as soybeans and sunflowers, which are the basis of animal feed. About 40% of these proteins are imported, which “constitutes one of the most worrying points with regard to the challenges of food autonomy”, notes the parliamentary report. More than half of sunflower cake, used in particular to feed ruminants, comes from Ukraine, for example, estimates Thierry Pouch.

The lack of supply of Ukrainian meal “will increase the cost of animal feed and penalize French breeding”, analyzes Christophe Gouel. To help breeders, the government has promised an envelope of 400 million euros as part of its resilience plan.

Overall, the experts interviewed by franceinfo want to be reassuring about the repercussions on France. Conversely, some countries in Africa and the Middle East are exposed “at real risk of famine or political instability”, points out Thierry Pouch. Egypt, Libya or Lebanon for example “depend between 50% and 100% on Russia and Ukraine for the supply of wheat”recalls the specialist.

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