Challenges of Rural Sustainability in France

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 14. July 2017 - 16:17

Challenges of Rural Sustainability in France

On 7-9 July, Arthur Dahl participated in a meeting of the Triglav Circle (http://www.triglavcircleonline.org/), which met in the Nievre Department in the Burgundy (Bourgogne) Region of central France. The Triglav Circle was founded after the 1995 UN Social Summit in Copenhagen by its Secretary-General, Jacques Baudot, and his wife Barbara, to continue the discussion of social issues and sustainability, particularly from an ethical and religious perspective. Over the years it has involved many leading thinkers and theologians, and contributes to UN processes. Participants in the circle this year included a former Secretary-General of the World Council of Churches from Germany and his wife, a retired American professor of economics, a state official dealing with information technologies, a French economist, and a Dutch development specialist, among others.

The theme this year was Rurality, and the local participants included a farm couple and their son who will inherit the farm, a beekeeper, the local priest, a retired Prefect (French Government official) now involved in local associations, the mayor of a village of 27 residents, a local land owner with a chateau and land titles going back over 500 years, the local leader of a farmers union, and other representatives of rural France. The Nievre is one of the most rural departments in France, and suffers from depopulation and declining services as young people move away. You can see photos at http://www.yabaha.net/dahl/travel/t2017/Nievre/Triglav.html.

In its discussions of rurality, the Triglav Circle explored many challenges to French agriculture which present an excellent case study of the multiple dimensions of sustainability. The government has professionalized the field, so that only someone with degrees in agriculture can take over a farm. The long hours of work are not compensated financially, and regulations are increasingly complex, requiring lots of paperwork. The prices for farm products decline continuously from the pressure of cheap imports from countries with lower labour and environmental standards, and from supermarket chains that want to lower prices and increase profit margins, so only the middlemen really profit from agriculture today. Up to 40% of revenues come from European Union subsidies, but if a farm is too small it does not qualify. A single family can succeed with a farm of 240 hectares, but becoming much larger will lead to bankruptcy from extra charges. It costs at least 400,000 euros to buy and equip a farm, which is beyond the reach of young farmers, and it takes many years to pay off the loans and begin to make a modest income. When a farmer retires, it is often impossible to find someone to take over the farm, and it is usually bought up by a big agrobusiness trying to build a monopoly position.

One case was cited of a farmer who earned a reasonable living without any subsidies, with small scale organic production respecting the soil and the animals, sold to a local circle of regular consumers without middlemen, preparing all his products himself. This would seem like an ideal for sustainability, but he could only do this by ignoring all government regulations. If he sent his animals to a slaughterhouse as the law required, he would have no control over the welfare of the animals or the preparation of the final products after they left his farm.

For years, the French government has encouraged industrial-scale farming under the pressure of agricultural lobbies, and regulated against any alternatives, complemented by European Union legislation that, while in the common interest, often has negative side effects. Only government-approved commercial seeds can be sold. Farms with less than 10 cows cannot receive subsidies. There is a rigidity in the system that discourages innovation.

The discussion explored alternative agricultural models and diversified sources of income, as well as the important social dimensions of rural communities that need to be maintained. There were not enough children to keep schools open, or patients to support health services. The Catholic priest, of Flemish origin, was now servicing 40 parishes, and his replacement on retirement was coming from India. Internet coverage would need to be subsidized, since the density was too low to support commercial services, yet without it, new residents could not be attracted to the region. Public transport was also a problem. Artisans and small businesses were closing as unprofitable, in a downward spiral of economic activity. Forestry was important in the region, but most logs were sent elsewhere for processing. There was potential to attract second homes and retirees, but only if essential services were available. It was clear that only an integrated approach treating many problems simultaneously could turn the situation around.