March 20, 2023
France's farmers step up grain production in light of war in Ukraine
French farmers have increased their grain production to make up for losses in Ukraine, which has had to reduce its agricultural exports since Russia's invasion in February 2022.
The war has pushed France to consider issues of food independence, and as it continues, it raises questions about France's long-term strategy.
"The crisis in Ukraine destabilised us much sooner than we expected," Laurent Rosso, director of the French vegetable oil and protein trade association Terres Univia, told RFI at the annual agriculture fair in Paris. The NGO brings together growers and exporters of crops like colza, peas, soy and sunflower, which is a major source of vegetable protein for farm animals.
The war in Ukraine "speeded up our awareness of being dependent," said Rosso.
Before the war, France imported about 400,000 to 450,000 tonnes of sunflower meal for animal feed each year from Ukraine, which produced two-thirds of the world's sunflower supply.
With the war blocking Ukrainian exports and putting a strain on farmers' ability to plant, France had to find ways to make up the difference.
With French farmers already produced about 300,000 tonnes to 400,000 tonnes of sunflower meal, and "we were gradually able to compensate – fairly quickly – for the shortages," said Rosso. "We increased the amount of land for French production.
"The market demand encouraged it, and our farmers were mobilised to plant sunflower where they could. You do it through crop rotations – by replacing corn, for example, or other crops."
Ukraine is expected to produce no more than 16 million tonnes of wheat in 2023, or half as much as it produced in 2021.
Grain supply problems were already present before the war, with increased demands from China and a shift in global markets because of COVID, and France – Europe's largest agricultural producer – had already been looking to export more wheat.
The war has accelerated the situation, with French wheat exports up 25% to countries including Algeria, Egypt and Morocco, according to the French grain trade association, Intercéréales.
The association would like to see France position itself as a real alternative to Ukrainian exports, even after the end of the war.
For sunflowers, the sector would like to be able to lower France's dependence on imports.
"The important thing for us is to become more independent," said Rosso. "That doesn't mean being self-sufficient, because that will never happen."
France is Europe's most "independent" country in this respect, producing more than 50% of its vegetable protein needs for animal feed compared to 35% for Europe, according to Rosso.
"We need to preserve this, and improve on it. Our goal is to produce 60% to 65% of our animal feed," he said.
By factoring in animal feed, however, both France and Europe struggle to grow enough to meet their total needs, not least because they lack the capacity to produce seeds.
Sunflower seed crops are different from commercial crops, and Ukraine was a leading producer of both due to its land availability and technical capacity.
The focus is now on finding growers in France who can produce enough to make up for anticipated shortages in the future, as the war drags on and seed stocks are not replenished.
"The question is, once the war is over – which I hope will be quickly – how do we work with Ukraine to develop, together, our independence in a balanced and sustainable way for everyone," said Rosso.