Over the last several decades, urbanization and industrialization have led to a radical shift in the French landscape, once dominated by agriculture. Since 1970, over 170 hectares of agricultural land have been lost each day to other uses, including urbanization, industrialization, and land management policies. This, in turn, has led to a rapid increase in the value of agricultural land; in the French region of Picardie, for example, the value of agricultural land has quintupled over the past five years. As a result, agricultural land is currently concentrated in the hands of the few large industrial farms that can still afford to own it. Of the small-scale landowners who have managed to hold onto their lands, most are aging farmers waiting for their property to be rezoned, so that they can sell it; indeed, today, 85 percent of land belongs to farmers aged fifty-five and older. As a result, it is increasingly difficult for people to acquire land and create their own agricultural enterprises.
In an attempt to protect farmers from this speculation, the government has instituted strict rules controlling the rents for rural territories, maintaining a low price disconnected from the real value of land. The government has, for example, helped launch a public-private body called SAFER, which aims to purchase land in order to protect it from speculation. Yet the scheme is riddled with corruption and misaligned objectives: SAFER’s private sector representatives belong to agro-industrial lobbies that protect the interest of large commercial farms. As a result, it is much more profitable for small farmers to rent their lands rather than farm them themselves, restricting farmers’ role as custodians of the land and subjecting them to an uncertain future.
Consequently, the number of agricultural enterprises has dropped dramatically over the past fifty years, from 600,000 farms in 1950 to fewer than 300,000 today. While French agriculture is already among the top three most industrialized in Europe, this trend is only likely to continue; indeed, it is estimated that in the next twenty years, there will be fewer than 150,000 farms in France, more and more of which will use industrial methods of production. The disappearance of farms has produced a corresponding loss in France’s rural population and job availability. Today, rural inhabitants represent 25 percent of the French population, but farmers, only 4 percent of the national workforce. These trends have had dramatic social consequences on rural areas, as local stores, schools, and even hospitals have been forced to close. The environmental impact has been all the more significant, as small-scale farming plays a critical role in preserving rural landscapes. Moreover, it is estimated that agro-industrial enterprises produce twice as many tons of oil waste as traditional farms, and emit as much greenhouse gas as all French households put together.
While some European agricultural policies have quickly reacted to similar trends in incentivizing a shift to high value-added organic farming, the French sector has resisted going organic. Only 2 percent of French agriculture is currently certified as organic, with the result that France imports from 50 to 90 percent of the organic produce it consumes. France’s agro-industries currently exercise inordinate influence over governmental institutions, receiving the vast majority of the European Union’s heavy agricultural subsidies. Meanwhile, the most vocal proponents of traditional agriculture are virtually powerless in the face of existing institutions; characterized by their unwavering opposition to globalization, unrealistic and politicized claims, and refusal to compromise, they have failed to propose a viable solution to today’s agricultural crisis.