We continue with our ‘Words of the Day After’ series with an emphasis on: Food Safety.
Published early May, seven large farming organisations called to “rebuild our food sovereignty”, echoing the “agricultural dependency” requested by the President of the Republic of France in his speech on 12 April, in the midst of the health crisis.
If, for several decades and despite several farming crises, the question of food no longer appeared to be a priority, the Covid-19 crisis has reminded us of the critical role of the supply chains.
The Covid-19 crisis has starkly highlighted the structural weaknesses and dependencies experienced by agricultural sectors and the 450,000 men and women who devote themselves to our land, and has also made the French aware of the need to defend “their” agriculture.
We believe that the health crisis and the uncertainty that will ensue are a unique opportunity to redesign the model of the French agricultural sectors and the position of farmers.
The Covid-19 crisis has revealed the difficulties that farmers have faced for a long time. In addition to the economic weaknesses linked to health, there are structural weaknesses which have long been ignored.
Today, farming is facing profound and global changes: ecological, with the fight against climate change and natural hazards; demographic, with a constantly growing global population which implies being able to produce more sustainable production methods; and food, with new eating habits and consumer demands, summed up as “eat less and better”.
These new challenges add to our previous difficulties and weaknesses. In recent decades, the agricultural world has been impacted by many crises, such as the one of 2015-2016 which affected all dairy and livestock sectors. The lack of competitiveness of French agriculture is often referenced in the face of international competition, marked in particular by demand from the Asian market and competition from companies in northern Europe, as well as the price war led by supermarkets on farming cooperatives and the agri-food industry, which is worsening difficulties in the sector. These changes are embodied, on the one hand, by the low profitability of farms, many of which depend on subsidies; and on the other hand by undersized and under-capitalised farms which prevent the investment needed to implement health standards and, lastly, by unequal sharing of added-value between the links in the chain of value.
This situation links to profession’s demographic challenges. The many warnings given by farmers did not prevent the disappearance of half of farms in France in a 15-year period. Within the next 10 years, nearly half of farmers will retire. This development is reinforced by agribashing and the sense of abandonment and isolation felt by farmers. There is also a high-level of dependency on foreign labour, with 400,000 seasonal workers from abroad each year harvesting fruit and vegetables.
Lastly, the system itself suffers from a lack of regulation and high complexity at the local, national and European levels. These different elements put into question the food autonomy of the country and the sustainability of the agricultural system.
The health crisis has highlighted the system’s structural weaknesses. It has also accelerated the change of paradigm by demonstrating players’ resilience and giving rise to operational responses to today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.
Some solutions were quickly found. As such, the health crisis appears to have accelerated supply chain changes (acceleration of direct sales and short supply circuits), which have helped to use up stocks of French farming production in supermarkets.
Furthermore, while relations between retailers and cooperatives have long been marked by disagreements over prices, during the crisis, retailers have favoured using up stocks of French and local production. In the trajectory of the Egalim law, which aims to improve farmers’ pay, the health crisis has played a role in accelerating good practice, with the development of a partnership-based relationship.
Agribashing has been replaced with “Eat French” to support national farmers in the face of the closure of restaurants and canteens, preventing them from using up their stock. The crisis has therefore accelerated the recognition of a profound and growing expectation, which began a few years ago, for better quality food. “Eat French” has potential, as the Minister for Agriculture, Didier Guillaume, emphasised on 13 May 2020, calling for “food and agricultural patriotism”.
Lastly, in the absence of the 400,000 foreign seasonal workers to harvest fruits and vegetables, over 300,000 French people have volunteered through “working hands for your plate” platform to help farmers in the fields. Although these applications result in only 15,000 contracted missions, the crisis has shown that it is possible to find trained local labour.
Our experience shows that, in supporting the government and public and private decision-makers, we have five growth areas to build a sustainable system on: federate, coordinate, modernise, become sustainable and add value.
The government and its relays could support the development of a competitive local sector and contribute to federating the most effective players to create champions in each sector able to expand internationally and gain market share, in compliance with international free trade agreements. On the other hand, the temptation to achieve food self-sufficiency and to withdraw into oneself would not hold up for long due to compelling export needs in some sectors.
The farming system could also be better coordinated in terms of financing, in order to ensure the future of cooperatives, family businesses and SMEs on the one hand, and to minimise the acquisition of shares in investment funds that are demanding in terms of profitability and also in terms of their investment horizon, on the other.
Tomorrow’s farming will be resolutely modernised thanks to funding and wider dissemination of the biggest innovations, notably in terms of digitalisation, automation and robotisation which are opening up new fields of transformation.
The 2020 annual report of the Court of Audit identified over 2020 yet unused data sets, which could become policy tools. Furthermore, Etatab has seized upon this subject with the development of the CartoBio solution, a digital tool to monitor plots of land farmed according to organic practices.
Other use cases illustrate this deep-rooted trend. Rica Granja, a Portuguese food manufacturing firm has embarked on an ambitious project based on Artificial Intelligence and automatic learning to control and classify eggs depending on their quality: 1.8 million eggs are thus upgraded every year. The agritech sector is currently on the rise, and many start-ups are proposing decision support tools to facilitate the everyday life of farmers and players in the sector. This is the case, for example, of Greenback, the first farmland rating agency.
These innovations should also facilitate a transition towards more sustainable farming through the massive reduction of the use of chemical products and the implementation of new production techniques to preserve soils and biodiversity. John Deere, manufacturer of farm machinery, presented an “enhanced” tractor at the CES 2020, which would make possible to use 80% less crop protection products for an equivalent area, thanks to embedded cameras coupled with AI. In parallel, regional agricultural chambers are developing support to implement practices inspired by agronomy.
Lastly, there is also the matter of nurturing and protecting workers better in the agricultural sector, starting with the farmer, the pillar of the system, who rexamine the meaning of their commitment and room for manoeuvre to develop both personally and professionally: reform of the status of seasonal workers, improve balance in the distribution of value for the benefit of farmers, and product legibility, traceability and transparency.
We are convinced that the Covid-19 crisis can generate profound reflection in the restructuring of these sectors and the agricultural models to come; discussions that Capgemini Invent teams would like to fully integrate.
Federate, coordinate, modernise, become sustainable and add value are the five areas in which the transformation of agricultural models will be based. Public and private decision-makers are the players that will invent tomorrow’s models and make it possible to reinforce food safety by following this saying by Richelieu, particularly relevant in the current crisis:
“we must not fear everything, but we must prepare for everything”.
This article is an English adaptation of a post initially created in French.
Survey conducted on 14 April, 93% of respondents considered that agricultural independence should be “the main post-Covid political priority”
Spirits, cereals, dairy sector