The perspective of Sébastien Abis, Director of Club LE DEMETER and associate researcher at IRIS

The world is changing. We need to adopt more sustainable farming methods. We also need a variety of different farming models that meet consumers' very diverse expectations. Far-sighted, open-minded: a global vision! That's one of the strengths of France and Europe…

Sébastien Abis

Sébastien ABIS,
Director of Club LE DEMETER and associate researcher at IRIS**

Why is farming such an important subject for the future?  

There are 1 billion farmers on the planet and 6.5 billion consumers that have lost their connection to the people whom they depend on for their survival! Because the primary purpose of farming is to feed people. Today's food supply situation has improved almost everywhere on the planet thanks to farmers and the progress they have accomplished. In a more prosperous world, eating seems like a banal concern whereas it is a vital necessity. It concerns everyone, everywhere, all the time. This is why farming has a bright future for the long term! We therefore need tools that are powerful enough to allow us to anticipate and see well into the future, with a wide enough scope to get beyond local issues and see globally because international issues are increasingly affecting local dynamics.

Local, national, global: Is the global farming and food supply equation really that complex?

Yes. First of all because the global population is growing fast, even if the phenomenon varies depending on the country and the continent. By 2025, there will be 600 million more people to feed — and 2.5 billion by 2050 — that's 230,000 additional inhabitants per day! 50% of the people born in the next 30 years will be African, and the continent's population will double from 1.2 to 2.4 billion people between 2018 and 2050. A century ago, Africa represented just 7% of the global population. That figure will reach 25 to 30% by 2050. We are witnessing a huge global, temporal, geographical, and demographic shift. Another shift is ongoing within regions, with galloping urbanisation.

What are the consequences of this urbanisation?

58% of the global population currently lives in cities. By 2030, nearly 5 billion people will be urbanites: There are already 1 billion people living in urban slums and some estimate that figure will reach 2 billion by 2050. And urbanisation has major consequences on food and water supply, which require efficient logistics and transportation. Cities also raise the issue of the provision of public services, security, accommodation, and the planning required to orchestrate it all. This is without mentioning that global urbanisation is also changing eating behaviour in terms of tastes and habits.

Towns are the home of the middle classes aren't they?

Yes. The rapid growth of the global middle class is another underlying trend. But they don't live where they used to! In the year 2000, the global middle class represented 1.4 billion people. That figure had doubled to 2.8 billion in 2015. It should reach 5.4 billion by 2030! This strong growth once again comes with geographical migration. Although 60% of this global middle class lived in Europe and North America in 1900, these regions are now home to only 33% of them, and that number should fall to 20% by 2030: We are seeing a shift towards Asia and South America. Yet this new, larger but less affluent middle class probably won’t have exactly the same expectations as their American or European counterparts. On top of their greater number and diversity, they will probably still want healthy and traceable products. These considerations on developments in food demand are decisive in terms of our future approach to farming in Europe. The markets are shifting and so are behaviour and expectations. Food supply will have to adapt to this hyper-diversity.

"The markets are shifting and so are behaviour and expectations.
Food supply will have to adapt to this hyper-diversity."

What will become of rural areas in this context?

Despite the development of cities, rural areas retain a key role in the world! They are currently home to around 3 billion people. In Asia and Africa, for example, rural areas have not really been depopulated.

People tend to believe that progress, intelligent models, and sustainable development only concern cities. However, the biggest schism today isn't so much between rich countries and poor countries, the developed world and the developing world, but in fact between urban areas and rural areas. Most of the economic investment, media attention, and political focus is in the former. Rural areas, on the other hand, are often enclaves and are rarely valued at their true strategic worth given our current challenges. Marginalised by politics and the media, the farming community is frustrated the world over. Great disruption has been fomented by the frustrations of people in rural communities, in rich and poor countries alike (Trump voters, Tunisian revolution, rural Brexiters). So we need to involve these populations more in development and social inclusion strategies.

Let's get back to Europe and France; what are their strengths?  

Let's highlight a few obvious points. For a start, in Europe, we currently have greater peace and stability, more water and arable land, more skills, a more efficient logistic infrastructure, and a more stable climate than most of the rest of the world. If Europe is seen as a model in terms of food safety, it's because after the Second World War, we decided to engage in sustainable peace, with respected governance, legal and regulatory systems that provided a favourable business environment and ambitious farming results. We need to cultivate this farming and food supply strategy by improving yields and competitiveness, as well as realising that changes can be made to improve things in the future.

Some people say that this somewhat productivist model is outdated…

If the message behind sustainable development is to no longer invest, to halt progress, we will create a global climate of mistrust. But given the hyper-diversification of consumer expectations, we must not offer one-size-fits-all or idealistic farming models. We need to maintain what is one of Europe and France's strengths, namely a wide variety of crops and food supply that can be sold to very diverse consumers with a plurality of expectations, in Europe and further afield.

We can design a transition where we use better techniques in the future, as long as we maintain a dynamic of development and trust. We need to banish nostalgic messages like "things were better in the olden days". It is certain that European farmers are being asked to be even more responsible with respect to consumer and environmental protection. It is a colossal task; which society and the political sphere must take into account. Few professions are concerned by such vital issues! Food safety and environmental sustainability: what a challenge!

So, Europe remains a key region for farming…

Yes. After the war, we chose to have hope in the future, with a long-term vision. We made agriculture one of the pillars of this project. A less united Europe, closed off from the rest of the world, would be less resilient to all manner of shocks caused by globalisation, diverse imports, and international export opportunities. So agriculture is a national security issue.

It is also a tool for international influence. Not many regions can leverage agriculture in their diplomacy. Yes, Europe is lucky when you take a dispassionate look at the many areas of insecurity – physical, climate, water, land, political, food – weighing on parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. Europe is directly confronted with instability in neighbouring regions. But to help these countries ensure their food supply, we must be on their markets and contribute to their efforts. Otherwise more and more people will be looking to emigrate! These countries must be able to produce more food locally, but they must also open up to international markets, be able to trade, develop a cooperative and agro-industrial fabric, implement coproduction strategies, invest in logistics and skills, and avoid food waste. It's not certain that Europe will be able to help them if we switch completely to organic farming or short distribution channels.

So, what model should we prefer for European farming then?

We stand to lose a lot if we choose a single farming and food production model, intended solely for a fraction of affluent, urban-dwelling Europeans, with purely ecological and local considerations around progress and development in farming.

This trend for degrowth (producing smaller quantities or very high-quality organic food and not seeking to export) is doubly dangerous. This insularity would create considerable geopolitical risk considering the world's food requirements and the sociopolitical instability in neighbouring countries. Although it is not France's role to "feed the world", it is desirable to see our agriculture "contribute to the global food equilibrium".

In summary, we want "natural" products in our plates, but complexity for agro-industrial players, and for farmers in particular!

Yes, the farming world is faced with a "complexification shock": Demanding consumers, climate change, heightened geopolitical instability, price volatility and fast-moving market dynamics that can be tied to certain sudden protectionist attitudes.

The societal issues also pose many challenges: Society tends to be suspicious of science while simultaneously demanding greater productivity from agriculture. That is the paradox of the consumer: urban, very demanding, and very impatient to be delivered, yet they also expect their food to be very "natural". We need to adopt more sustainable, transparent, ethical farming methods that protect the environment and enable as many people as possible to flourish. A big challenge!

Do you mean that "better" agriculture means using science and new technologies… Otherwise it’s an impossible task?

We are certainly not making life easy for farmers by confiscating certain scientific inventions! For example, European regulators consider NBTs (New Breeding Techniques) as equivalent to GMOs. It's all the more paradoxical since Europe does not ban NBTs in medicine… If we cannot compete on an even playing field with our global competitors, we run the risk of sabotaging the long-term competitiveness of European farming.

Sébastien Abis

Presentation by Sébastien Abis at VIVESCIA's Annual General Meeting, on 12 December 2018

European farmers are unsettled. The arrival of GAFAM on the landscape will exacerbate the situation…

Indeed, European farmers are unsettled by several factors. First of all, the regulatory framework provides fewer incentives than in the past. We are progressively moving towards a European society that is less convinced by the role of agriculture in its economy and food safety, with a CAP that is being dismantled, with greater focus on the environment than economic efficiency. Farmers are being refused access to certain aspects of scientific progress, as we just mentioned. Faced with demographic changes and a changing world, Europe gives the impression that it is treading water. This procrastination sows doubt in farmers’ minds and reinforces the crisis of meaning in the farming profession.

GAFAM’s dramatic arrival in the food industry is another destabilising factor. These giants of the digital economy are increasingly investing in food and agriculture – sectors that generate huge amounts of data — and are gradually imposing themselves as new players in the farming industry. The great innovators – e-commerce giants and many start-ups – are working on distruptive models of everyday consumption, supply, and food. Amazon and Alibaba clearly have ambitions for the food industry and are emerging as new players in rural development. This has already happened in the Chinese countryside, with so-called TaoBao villages, encouraged by Beijing, whose purpose is to connect the countryside and increase the income of rural households through e-commerce.

So, farming and food processing is not – or no longer – reserved for the traditional agro-industrial players.

If Europeans no longer believe in their farming model, new players from elsewhere (other continents, other sectors of the economy) will take up the baton. This is not a problem – on the contrary — if it is done strategically and intelligently with our European neighbours in order to consolidate the strengths of our farming and food processing systems. However, if this dynamic does not involve Europeans, because they have turned their back on agriculture, it is not desirable. By that time it would be too late to ask questions, to wonder why Europe let it happen, why didn't it didn't believe in its farming industry despite its many strengths: Peace, stability, know-how, the quantity and quality of its crops, their unparalleled diversity, etc. All these strengths make France and Europe central variables in the global food equation.

What can farmers do in this context?

The farming world must ask the nation to promote its strengths, its know-how, and its capacity for constant adaptation. It must rely more on interactions between land and sea to reinforce our farming and food production sovereignty. It is also important to re-establish some first principles about food. And the general public must let go of its idealised, fixed image of farming. It has been a long time since French and European farmers looked anything like "Old MacDonald"!

"The farming world must ask the nation to promote its strengths, its know-how, and its capacity for constant adaptation."

At the same time, farmers must also question their methods, make better products in the future, optimise their farms' efficiency… Some will choose to meet the needs of hyper-urban, hyper-demanding consumers with a taste for fusion food, who are also concerned about transparency, traceability, diversity and "precision" in their plates with the advance of allergies and new diets. The farming sector must meet these diverse challenges. However, only being focused on the "premium" segment would certainly have major consequences for the rural world. On the contrary, we must accept that several farming systems can cohabitate.

So, there is no ideal model that meets all the challenges of our time?

French, American, and Chinese consumers today are giving us mixed – and contradictory — messages. They want local food for lunch, world food in the evening, organic food on Friday, and junk food before the match on Saturday: We probably have to remain open to this plurality of demand and, therefore, solutions.

It must be able to supply local markets without turning its back on its global role: to supply more remote markets. And farmers themselves must be allowed to make entrepreneurial choices, to make best use of their talents, their desires, and their resources within this wide-range of possibilities.

*Club Demeter: An ecosystem of farming and food industry associations with a focus on long-term thinking, global challenges, and progress-based solutions for the future. -> www.clubdemeter.com
**IRIS: Institut de relations internationales et stratégiques (Institute for international and strategic relations)