France bids to regain 'food sovereignty' with plan to boost protein crops

PARIS (Reuters) - France aims to raise the area it sows with protein-rich crops by 40% from 2022 and double it over 10 years to reduce heavy reliance on soybean imports from South America, Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie said on Tuesday.

French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Agriculture Ministry in Paris, France, December 1, 2020. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

France and other European Union countries import millions of tonnes of soybean and soymeal each year, mainly from Brazil and Argentina, to feed livestock, making them dependent on world prices, trade relations and environmental practices overseas.

“We have one objective : regain some of our food sovereignty,” Denormandie told Reuters in an interview.

“Our target today is clearly soybean imports coming from the American continent,” he said, adding that South American countries were the main origin for soy-based proteins in the EU.

A 40% rise in protein crops would amount to an extra 400,000 hectares of land to be harvested by 2023, the farm ministry said.

France imported 2.2 million tonnes of soymeal in the July 2019 to June 2020 season, of which 1.95 million came from Brazil, making it the biggest EU importer of Brazilian soymeal, official data showed. Soybean imports in 2019/2020 totalled 658,000 tonnes.

Within 10 years, France aims to double its total protein-crop area to 2 million hectares, reducing its reliance on imports by 10 percentage points.

France, the EU’s largest crop grower, will invest a total of 100 million euros ($119.8 million) in aid over two years to encourage farmers to devote more land to protein crops and boost research, he said. Protein-rich crops to be encouraged include soybeans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas, as well as beans.

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Only about 50% of France’s protein crop needs are covered by French production, Denormandie said.

“The second problem is that when you import Latin American soybean, you (contribute to) deforestation and thus in addition to a problem of sovereignty you have an environmental problem,” he said.

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest surged to a 12-year high in 2020, data showed on Monday.

France has opposed concluding a trade deal between the EU and the Mercosur bloc of South American countries due to environmental issues.

Commenting on France’s aim to cut farmers’ reliance on protein imports, Greenpeace said on Monday: “Unfortunately, the issue of overproduction of meat, eggs and dairy products has been completely sidelined. As long as the government refuses to address this issue, we can already say that this strategy will be doomed.”

To improve competitiveness against cheaper imports, French farmers will also benefit from additional subsidies approved under a proposed reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, Denormandie added.

The plan does not aim to support plant-based proteins for use in processed food such as alternative meat, a ministry official said.

“There is obviously a political dimension to this plan in the reaffirmation of France’s protein sovereignty,” Arnaud Rousseau, head of French oilseed and protein crop growers group FOP, told Reuters.

“Everyone is aware that soybean imports will continue but the ambition is realistic and achievable.”

($1 = 0.8348 euros)

Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide and Gus Trompiz, editing by Louise Heavens, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Jan Harvey