Industrial Agriculture and Brittany’s Algae Problem

Covid was responsible for the early stages of this year’s Tour de France being moved from Denmark to Brittany.

The Australian public broadcaster SBS prides itself on its coverage of the Tour, having clocked up 30 years on the job. This year Australian viewers witnessed the eye candy of Brittany’s chateaux, antique churches, quaint villages, manicured rolling fields and pristine waterways, plus sumptuous food offerings – diversions from the carnage facing the riders for which the race organisers assume no responsibility. But no mega pig or poultry factory farms and no green algae.

Brittany’s green algae problem

Significant parts of Brittany’s coastline are smothered in green algae – in the Departments of Finistère to the west and Côtes d’Amor to the north. Appearing in spring and summer (recently arriving earlier and remaining longer), the stuff dries on top, under which is produced hydrogen sulfide, released when the mat is trodden on.

This 2016 account (in French) from Julie Lallouët-Geffroy of Reporterre summarizes (with my interpellations) the casualties to that date:[4]

‘In 1989, the body of a jogger of 26 years has been found [prostrate] in green algae on the beach of Saint-Michel-en-Grève (Côtes-d’Armor). Ten years later, Maurice Brifault has become ill at the wheel of his vehicle after having amassed the algae on the same beach. He comes to in the Saint-Brieuc hospital after three days in a coma [and spends four months in hospital]. In [July] 2008, a local resident has seen his two dogs die on the beach of Hillion (Côtes-d’Armor). The following year [July 2009], [48-year old] Thierry Morfoisse dies at the wheel of his vehicle after amassing algae. [He was transporting 20 tonnes of algae from the beach at Blinic to the waste disposal plant at Lantic, wearing no protective gear.] A week later, on the beach of Saint-Michel-en-Grève, a horse succumbs [in minutes] and its rider [dragged unconscious from the site] stays in a coma for several days. In 2011, 36 wild boars die over a week on the beaches of Morieux, opposite Hillion on the other side of the Gouessant estuary. In September 2016, it was the turn of [50-year old] Jean-René Auffray, [another jogger and] known sportsman, to lose his life in this estuary. In total, the deaths of three people and 39 animals are bound to the green algae dossier.’

Multiple studies have researched the problem. Special conditions are needed for the algae to flourish – relatively warm water, not too deep and relatively calm. Just such conditions are to be found in Brittany’s protected bays – especially those of Lannion, Saint-Brieuc, Douarnenez and La Forêt-Fouesnant.

But the raw material? The algae in this mass is produced predominantly by high level of nitrates, present in the water table and carried down by Brittany’s river system to the coast. The natural presence of nitrates in the Breton river system has been estimated at 2-3 mg per litre. In 1971, measurement levels averaged 5.5 mg/l; in 1976 7.5 mg/l; in 1981, levels averaged 21.5 mg/l. The average levels reached a peak at over 50 mg/l during the 1990s, declining after remedial action but remaining stubbornly over 30 mg/l to date. Horn-Guillec reached over 100 mg/l in 2000 and is still above 60 mg/l. 50 mg/l is just potable, 25 mg/l is recommended for drinking water, and 10 mg/l is what various authorities are hoping for. Fat chance.

And whence come the nitrates? From the massive quantities of fertiliser and manure emanating from the piggeries, poultry farms, etc. During 1950-70, production levels of poultry, pigs and beef more than doubled. Since 1970, production levels have more than quadrupled. Brittany has 7 per cent of the country’s agricultural surface area but houses 60 per cent of the country’s pig rearing, 30 per cent of poultry and 30 per cent of beef.

Brittany gets most of its drinking water from rivers, so the problem can’t be ignored. Bretons resort to buying bottled water, but they’ve long been pissed off.

Who pays?

The authorities initially responded to the water problem by devoting large sums to the installation of water treatment plants and charging residents a tax for the service. Since, local authorities have devoted large sums to ‘harvesting’ the beaches of their algae. Then there’s the untold loss associated with missing tourist revenue.

We have here, in the language of mainstream economics, an ‘externality’ problem writ large. Those who generate the problem don’t pay the full cost of production, the difference being partly taken up by the authorities out of the public purse. A case of ‘market failure’, big time.

Rennes-based Philippe Le Goffe brings an informed economist’s perspective on the drift.[2] France’s problem, claims Le Goffe, is dysfunctional regulation – the ‘polluter pays’ principle (‘internalizing’ the market externalities) is near non-existent. He claims that this lack is by contrast with the comparator countries Denmark and the Netherlands, where penalties are significant for non-compliance with environmentally-driven directives. Are the French governmental apparatuses really trying? Le Goffe, however, doesn’t question the agro-industrial imperative of greater scale.

Governmental in/action

The politics surfaces in 1971. The municipal council of Saint-Michel-en-Grève wrote to the Departmental Prefect requesting financial assistance to deal with the disgusting deposits – ‘both for the matter of public health and for tourism, it’s imperative that this situation is remedied as quickly as possible’. Good luck with that. Half a century later …

In 1976, the number of pigs per hectare formally allowed was reduced, restricted to 40. The rule was honored in the breach. It’s a matter of French competitivity, and at that time the Danes had to be beaten in the marketplace, with de facto government support.

The farms and the industrial sectors behind them, the related lobbies, the state, the relevant finance and insurance bodies – all have been in denial. It took the death of Morfoisse in 2009 and the community’s reaction to generate a concerted response. In September 2009, the then Prefect of Côtes-d’Armor wrote to the Prime Minister (then François Fillon) and relevant Ministers saying, in effect, the jig is up. Local activists are taking us to court demanding action. The Prefect appended a then secret report on the state of play. The Prefect summed up the nature of the impasse:

‘The significant reduction of this phenomenon is only achievable by a profound change in agricultural practices of the sectors concerned, this that the sector is not ready to accept at this time. It is a matter of revolutionizing (we’re talking about 2190 farms, 25% of the Department’s farms) agricultural practices and changing completely the existing economic model. This development is not presently realistic, so the green algae problem is set to persist.’

Quite. By 2009, Paris belatedly accepted that the problem was of national concern. In January 2010, a joint ministerial committee produced an expansive report – ‘[A] plan to combat green algae’ (Élaboration d’un plan de lute contre les algues vertes) – a 5-year 2011-16 implementation agenda in a country that had given up planning (dirigisme) and was well out of practice and expertise. Formal priority was given to reducing farming nitrates emission on the margin, and to recuperating and quarantining natural areas.

Self-congratulations ensued on the reduction of the average nitrates rate in the waters (hard line in the graph below) and in the volume of algae generated (columns in the graph). But the algae’s scale returned with a vengeance during 2015-17 and 2019 following ‘favourable’ weather conditions, and the nitrates rate remains stubbornly above 30 mg/l. Yet this solid year of 2019 for algae was accompanied by the establishment of more pig factory farms.

Source: Sénat Commission des finances, Algues vertes en Bretagne, May 2021

A second plan was initiated for 2017-21. In 2021, the Cour des comptes (the ‘Court of Auditors’, equivalent to the US’ GAO) gets involved, predictably asking – is the state getting value for money.[9] The conclusion is – no. Of the roughly €150 million committed across the two plans (less than initially promised), an inadequate percentage was devoted to nitrates emission and leakage, too much to ‘curative’ measures, and the plans depended upon the goodwill of the farmer for implementation. More, such expenditure is overwhelmed by larger sums coming from Brussels in the form of the vaunted Common Agricultural Policy, which sums have been predominantly directed to subsidizing volume and thus propping up the agro-industrial model.

In the meantime, a Departmental prefect and the Regional Breton prefect combine to sue the French state in the regional tribunal at Rennes for the cost of algae collection during 2014-17. They were leveraging judgments made by the European Court of Justice (below). In February 2018, after a three-year investigation, the tribunal awarded the litigants €556,000 – their cost of collection for the period.

Also recently in May 2021, the Sénat Commission des finances reported that the ‘struggle’ against green algae is costing the state €7 million per annum, yet the situation remains at an impasse.

In June 2012, scientists complemented political and bureaucratic concern. Another report was issued, authored by the agricultural science establishment led by Bernard Chevassus-au-Louis. The report claims that 90 per cent of the nitrogenous discharges, predominantly responsible for the algae, comes from agriculture. This problem needs to be addressed at its source: ‘The reduction of nitrates production linked to agricultural and animal rearing activities is the most pertinent means to limit the proliferation of green algae.’ The report reinforced conclusions made in a 2003 report by a maritime research organization.

The existence of the Chevassus team and its subsequent report is itself remarkable. It was a product of cooperation of the agriculture and ecology Ministers in late 2011 under the Sarkozy Presidency – a most improbable backdrop but evidence of the desperation in which the responsible powers found themselves.

According to the Chevassus report, the nitrates-algae link was earlier posited in the late 19th Century, with the presence of algae in Belfast Lough and expert opinion attributing it to the area’s industrialization. In Brittany, the problem and the evidence gradually accumulates from the 1950s onwards, with a critical threshold reached for locals at Lannion in 1968 and at Saint-Brieuc in 1972. Attempted clean-up operations begin as early as 1973.

It appears that the report’s implications fell on deaf ears. Rather, the Hollande Presidency, under pressure, moved in October 2013 to ease the administrative procedures to allow more ready installation of mega-size piggeries. By that time, promoters had to undergo a lengthy authorisation process to satisfy demanding environmental standards. The restrictions were effectively abolished, with installations of up to 2000 pigs admissible, compared to 450 beforehand, merely with notification of the project to the Prefecture. This was part of Hollande’s vaunted choc de simplification. The pork lobby claimed the change as a victory for modernisation and competitivity. In 2010, a local Deputy had attempted to insert an amendment on identical terms to then legislation and was howled down from all quarters. Three years later, all systems go, to the disgust of the environmental lobbies. It appears that a key force behind this cave-in was the then Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault who signed the liberalizing decree on 27 December, partly due to concern about the municipal elections in early 2014. No doubt, another key influence was Jean-Yves Le Drian, then Defense Minister, long-time influential Baron (part of the French political lexicon for fiefdoms) in Breton politics of the Parti socialiste.

This in spite of the fact that the European Commission had taken France to the European Court of Justice over the issue. Beforehand, the EU had issued the Nitrates Directive in December 1991, directed to the control of water pollution, to which France remained generally indifferent and to which the EC drew France’s attention again in April 2009. The EC had gained a ruling from the ECJ in 2001, which France ignored. The EC went back to the ECJ in 2007, seeking hefty fines. France delayed with fudged deliberations. In June 2013, the ECJ, following another EC submission, again condemned France’s inaction. Four months later, France ignores the EC and the ECJ, right in the middle of its 2011-16 plan to combat the algae.

In January 2014, three environmental activist groups took the governmental ‘2000 pigs’ decree to the Conseil d’État (the highest court with jurisdiction in administrative justice), seeking to have it overturned. In April 2015, the Conseil d’État rejected the appeal (taking 15 months to do so in the bargain). As a France Nature Environment site noted:

‘This relaxation will result in the [further] amalgamation of farm holdings and of the concentration of harmful emissions into aquatic domains (nitrates, phosphorous). The model of intensive agriculture promoted by this reform confirms the commitment of France to an impasse that is environmental, social and economic.’

Cherry on the cake, nitrous oxide is even more deleterious in its relative contribution to greenhouse gases than is CO2,[8] with France promising to reduce its emissions significantly by 2030. Recently, a Deputy of Macron’s LRM Party proposed a tax on nitrogenous fertiliser sales to be redistributed to farmers actively reducing their usage. FNSEA lobbying killed off the move, with help from the Minister of Agriculture whose senior adviser had previously been employed as strategist for Groupe Roullier, a major producer of nitrogenous fertilizer.

But what forces lie behind the current impasse?

Brittany goes from backwardness to agricultural powerhouse

In 1945, the French peasantry were generally still operating by traditional means. During the 1950s, successive governments (in the context of the creation of a European Economic Community, with West Germany returned as an industrial powerhouse) moved to revolutionise agriculture, with the amalgamation of scattered holdings, mechanisation and the application of fertilisers and pesticides. What had happened or was happening elsewhere was applied in France at great speed. Bivar and Whited note:[6]

‘Between 1955 and 1975 … the active agricultural population was cut in half, and 40,000 to 50,000 farms disappeared every single year … the average size of French farms almost tripled. Productivity levels soared …

‘By the late 1960s, when the Common Market was in full swing, France had become the dominant agricultural producer within the community. Between 1960 and 1982 earnings from agricultural exports skyrocketed from 5 million to 80 million francs …

‘The successful scaling-up of the farm sector led to the development of a heavily capitalised agro-industrial food complex. … While Julia Child was teaching the Americans how to master the art of French cooking, the French were embracing cheap convenience food.’

This revolution was nowhere more strikingly implanted than in Brittany. There was also a complementary ‘bottom-up’ movement. A deep conservatism reigned in rural Brittany. Following World War I devastation and inter-World War rural impoverishment, a Right-wing populist activism emerged (chemises vertes). After World War II, in the context of ongoing food shortages and rationing and hard agricultural labor practices, it is the time of the Catholics. Thus arises the significant role of the Jeunesse agricole chrétienne (Christian Agricultural Youth). Coincidentally, the parents of the local political heavyweight Jean-Yves Le Drian were members of JAC. Peculiarly, its ideology combined ‘technical progress’, ‘Christian humanism’ and ‘individual achievement’. In the process, family farm and farm population density remained higher than elsewhere. This phenomenon also contributed to the formation of farmer cooperatives which later came to subscribe to a total commitment to commercially-driven agro-industrial processes.

The seeming agricultural success story, generated in a mere several decades, has reinforced a longstanding notion of Breton distinctness and adding a layer of seeming resilience, indeed invulnerability. And a distrust of Paris. We’re all right, Jack.

But things weren’t all right. Economic fragility had been dramatically enhanced by big regional employment losses in the last several years, not least 1,400 employees and dozens of sub-contractors from Peugeot production at Rennes in 2012, and several thousand from agro-industrial concerns (below). With the added indirect impact on the local business community, the early 2010s were cathartic.

This sense of distinctness coupled with economic fragility lay behind the emotional outburst of October 2013 in response to the ‘écotaxe’, a road users’ tax for heavy vehicles on the ‘polluter pays’ principle. The tax had first been conceived in 2007 as part of a general thrust for environmental improvement (Grenelle de l’Environnement), with the intent to shift freight onto rail. Some protestors came dramatically embellished with the bonnets rouges, resurrecting the peasants’ revolt of 1675 for god’s sake. One protestor was reported as shouting ‘This is not a demonstration, it’s the start of a revolution!’. There were instances of violent conflict with unfortunate consequences and some unseemly destruction of public infrastructure. Don’t mess with us.

The government panics, suspends the écotaxe (later killed off) and comes up with a 69 page ‘pact for the future’ (Pacte d’avenir pour la Bretagne), signed by Prime Minister Ayrault on 13 December. It is chock full of stock flowery phrases regarding revving up the Breton economy, innovation, competitivity, etc. Methanation (manure into energy) figures as a miracle cure for nitrates reduction. €2 billion (of which €1 billion for agriculture) is thrown in to enhance the independently-minded Bretons’ self-respect. The pact offers more of the same regarding the agricultural model. It is in this vein that the document moots, in a barely noticeable paragraph, the liberation of piggery numbers that was legitimized in a directive two weeks later. Industry spokespersons were still not happy, claiming that that the money offered involved merely reshuffling of old, and that methanation is quackery.

Civil war in Brittany

The situation has long had its detractors, generating activist organizations of all stripes – for example, Bretagne Eau Pure (becoming Grand project 5), Eaux et rivières de Bretagne, France Nature Environnement (FNE), the federation Sauvegarde du Trégor, Bretagne vivante, Haltes aux marées vertes, the Confédération paysanne (a dissident farmer group), Collectif Kelaouiñ (journalists), and so on.

The farming lobby has fought back, ferociously. It has the full support of the dominant agricultural organisation, the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA). The scientific basis for the quantum nitrates-algae link is denied.

In effect there has been a civil war in Brittany for decades, as highlighted by a 2011 book by local activists Yves-Marie Le Lay and André Ollivro, Les marées vertes tuent aussi (The green tides also kill). A friend originally from Brittany says that she has only every known this environment since childhood.

Ollivro[5] has been a tireless activist for the ecological cause since he retired and built a cabin in 1968 (‘just before the green algae arrived’) at Grandville overlooking the Saint-Brieuc bay. In those days, he claims, one could fish for shrimp, periwinkles, bass; these days – nothing. For his efforts he has received death threats, nasty things at his doorstep and denigration as an obsessed anti-farmer per se.

In 2011, posters exposing the green algae menace, installed by FNE in Paris metro stations, were taken down.

In June 2012, a local tribunal denied acknowledgement and compensation to the horse’s owner, a veterinarian, claiming that there was no link between the horse’s death in 2009 and the algae.

An inquest, over seven months, into the 2016 death of Jean-René Auffray was dismissed for ‘lack of decisive evidence’. This in spite of the fact that, in December 2016, nine doctors and toxicologists put their professional weight behind hydrogen sulfide as the cause of his death. At the time of Auffray’s death, the activists claimed that it was self-evidently due to the algae. The local authorities, forced into an autopsy, dissembled that a heart attack was a definite possibility.

In April 2017, almost eight years after the death of Thierry Morfoisse, his family are in court (the Departmental Social Security Tribunal) demanding that his death be ruled work-related, so that acknowledgement and compensation can follow. Morfoisse’s employer claimed that he died of natural causes (smoker, cholesterol, etc.). Belatedly, in June 2018, the Tribunal judges that the death was work-related. The outcome? The relevant insurer is instructed to turn a mere €500 to Morfoisse’s family.

Numerous other coastal deaths ignored, autopsies denied or badly handled, important evidence missing from dossiers, predictably close links to the farming and food industry organisations, the Saint-Brieuc authorities had become an integral part of the problem.

In 2019, journalist Inès Léraud also published a book on the issue, Algues vertes, l’histoire interdite (Green algae, the untold story) – this time a picture book with Pierre van Hove as artist.[5] Three years in the making, Léraud had moved to Bretagne as an area where she believed buried secrets were in need of exposure.

Her book became a bestseller but her invitation to a regional literary event was cancelled under political pressure, and a proposal for a translation of the book into the Breton language was scrapped for fear that the publisher would lose its subsidisation.

Her writings led to two defamation suits against her (a ‘scientist’ close to the agricultural lobby and a large wholesaler engaged in dodgy practices), but both litigants pulled out at the eleventh hour. Facing costly litigation, Léraud received a critical mass of support, including from journalists. Her case has upped the ante. In June 2020, 15 Breton journalists, supported by over 250 journalists nationwide, wrote an open letter to the region’s President denouncing the omerta that prevails in the investigation and reporting of the region’s agricultural sector.

In 2020, Aude Rouaux and Marie Garreau de Labarre produced a documentary Bretagne, une terre sacrifiée. It was shown on the public television channel France 5, generating the highest audience in twelve months for the slot. It has since, atypically, been taken down from the web. People involved with the documentary have been disparaged and received threats, not least local journalist Morgan Large (night time calls, her dog poisoned, her car tampered with, etc.) as well as her employer. The FNSEA Breton branch called the documentary a ‘fiction’. The agro-industrial lobby has its own public relations network, as well as close links with the regional general media. Agro-industrial senior personnel and the local political elite, across the political spectrum, are intermeshed.

Brittany’s industrial agriculture self-destructs

Great irony, the ongoing destruction of the Breton ecology as casualty has not saved the agro-industrial model which is imploding of its own contradictions.

Less than a year after the ‘pact for the future’ package there is another demonstration in September 2014 in Morlaix, this time against the farmers’ social security scheme (mutualité sociale sécurité), with farmers hooded and vehicle number plates covered, and more public buildings set on fire. 2015 saw more protests. Farmers erected barricades in Breton towns, demanding financial assistance. The Hollande/Valls government pragmatically came up with another €600 million aid in July. Even then the funds were to be inappropriately found by lowering the sector’s social contributions. Yet still not enough.

The problem is inherent in the agro-industrial model itself.

Behind the buzzwords of efficiency and productivity lies greater scale and intensity. Land, infrastructure, mechanised equipment and chemical inputs requires greater debt. Disposing of more effluent on site, under pressure from regulators, leads to demand for yet more land rather than reduction of animal numbers.

Farmers are squeezed by rising input costs and downward pressure on unit prices and revenue from downstream industrial heavyweights in abattoirs, processing/manufacture, distribution and retailing. France’s giant retailers, as elsewhere, engage in systemic discrimination against suppliers (questioned but not challenged by competition authorities), which perennially (as in Autumn 2013) breaks out in intra-retailer price wars and sub-production cost pricing on loss leaders. Farmers are at the end of the downward pressure on prices.

That farmer cooperatives are an integral part of the Breton model provides a misleading intimation regarding farmer autonomy. There is nothing cooperative about Breton cooperatives. Farmers are effectively indentured to their cooperatives, being dictated to in detail. This includes dictates as to chemical inputs from the cooperatives’ specialist staff, with the cooperatives making a decent part of their revenues from the sale (and advice as to use) of such chemicals. This link involves a transparent conflict of interest. In spite of the plan ecophyto of 2009, agricultural chemical inputs continued to expand. Emanuel Macron came to the Presidency in 2017 promising to split the link between chemical inputs advice and sale. Negotiations took place and an order issued in April 2019, but strong pressure from the lobby effectively eviscerated the order’s substance.

Two major Breton agricultural cooperatives Triskalia and D’aucy, in spite of dominance over members, have themselves been under pressure with falling revenues. Merger negotiations began in 2014 which culminated in the merged entity Eureden as from December 2020. The head of D’aucy promised that ‘The merger will make us more competitive in the marketplace and drive higher revenue for farmers’. Total blather.

Other Breton agro-industrial companies have experienced crisis, with significant retrenchments – 1000 (of which 600 in Brittany) at poultry giant Doux in 2012 and 2018 (mostly female processing line workers), 900 when the Gad pork abattoirs collapsed in 2013, 300 plus at poultry processor Tilly-Sabco since 2014, 400 at Marine Harvest fisheries over several sites in 2013-14, 50 at the hatchery of Amice-Souquet in 2013, and 150 at the canning factory of Boutet Nicolas which closed down in 2014. Add the thousands of uncounted casuals and sub-contractors. Tilly-Sabco was hit when Brussels pulled the plug on subsidies that aided the companies exports of frozen chicken competing with the cheaper ‘bleached’ chicken (a process forbidden in Europe) from Brazil and the US. Tilly-Sabco closed for good in April 2018, with devastating effects on the township of Guerlesquin. The Gad collapse was also linked to the cessation of subsidies from Brussels.

The Breton model was going gung ho during the 1950-70s, with food sold to Breton consumers, to France, then to Britain and to the handful of EEC countries, and then beyond. But the world kept changing. Spain and Portugal were accepted into the EEC in 1986, offering lower labor costs. More of the same occurred on a grander scale with the accession of Eastern European countries to the EU during the 2000s. This accession was a double whammy, with the astute coloniser Germany benefiting significantly from using Eastern European labour, as well as labour from a dismantled Yugoslavia, and expanding agricultural production dramatically.

For example, in 2019, France produced 2.2 million tonnes of pig meat, overwhelmed by Germany (5.2 million tonnes) and Spain (4.6 million tonnes).[7] Spain’s transformation in pork factory farming was equally as rapid as in France and brutal in terms of farm amalgamation and vertical integration. Moreover, Germany never misses a chance to snooker France, with rumored dumping of its pork meat on the French market. With respect to global pork meat production, Brittany is a small fish in a big (stinking) pond. The imperative is to get bigger, but one is never big enough. ‘Get big or get out’ is a false promise.

Then comes the coup de grâce. Europe, playing perennial lapdog to American imperatives, imposes sanctions on Russia following Russia’s incorporation of Crimea after the bloody russophobic Maidan coup of February 2014 and following (unfounded) attribution of blame on Russia for the shootdown of the Malaysian airline MH17 in July 2014. Russia responds by placing heavy counter-sanctions on Europe. Moscow-based John Helmer surveyed the damage in September 2014.[3] Although France wasn’t the worst hit, a closed considerable Russian market means that each country’s producers up the competition for access to other countries’ markets – not least Eastern European producers, until 2014 benefiting (for historic reasons) from access to the Russian market. Overproduction ensues, and prices fall further. A lead spokesperson for the Breton pork sector noted: ‘The European functionaries make war against Russia, yes, but the war is ultimately against us.’

Many farming families leave the sector. There were 9000 pork farmers in Brittany in 2000; the number was down to 6000 by 2013. The French dairy sector has been devastated following deregulation dictated from Brussels.

Meanwhile, farmer maladies are rampant from heavy and constant pesticide/herbicide use. A ten-year study by Inserm (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale) resulted in a late 2020 report. In spite of formally healthier outdoor lifestyle, farmers suffer disproportionately from a range of cancers, lymphoma in particular. There is a direct relation between cancer incidence and the scale and frequency of chemical use. Volumes of chemicals applied have been reduced in recent years, but the toxicity of new chemicals has been enhanced. Bee-keepers, facing ever decreasing hive numbers, are the sentinels of the ongoing environmental crime.

Farmers kill themselves disproportionately, yet the subject remains taboo. A March 2021 report by a committee of the French Senate reported a 2019 study that found over 600 farmer suicides across France in 2015. The Committee was scandalized that the issue lacked such sufficient public importance that no more recent figures were available.

Doux as representative

Breton poultry giant Groupe Doux (now diminished), sometime number one poultry producer in Europe, is representative of the dysfunctionality and the impasse. An exemplar of process line food production, from the 1970s Charles Doux turned a family concern into a giant – underpinned by lobby and political support, made tangible in massive long term subsidisation sums, direct and indirect at the French local and national and European levels. He amasses abattoirs, establishes contractual relations with farmers, and builds exports to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and Africa. He acquires star status as ‘the poultry king’.

Facing downward pressure on returns (and product standardization) from downstream powerful retailers and distributors (to fast food or restaurant chains, etc.), Doux opts to go vertically integrated. With its abattoirs, it tightens contracts with breeders and feed growers and moves into end product manufacture. On the way to crisis Doux had 800 farmers under contract with facilities space totalling one million square metres. At 28 chicks per square metre and 7 to 8 broods per year, that makes 200 million chickens a year.

The farmers, indebted, are effectively enslaved, returning a pittance, with penalties for non-compliance with strict norms. Critical input from farmers is not tolerated. The workers are near uniformly on the starvation level minimum mandated wage (Smic), with no compensatory broader training, and with appalling working conditions (à la Amazon) where RSI is rampant. A union rep claimed: ‘I’m telling you, it’s Germinal here, whereas the company lives off financial assistance and then asks for more.’ The workers are dispensable, as it turns out to be. As for the mutilated animals …

In 1988 Doux also starts up in Brazil, drawing on cheap wages and cheaper cereal and oilseed feed, and bypassing European and French regulations. It has been estimated that Doux clocked up over €1 billion in subsidies via Brussels from 1995 to 2012 (formally to assist the exportation of frozen chickens raised on more expensive European grain). Agricultural economist Jacques Berthelot estimates that the figure could have been closer to €2 billion. In all probability, Doux built its Brazilian holdings with these funds. Doux used the move to Brazil to shut down over ten years more than a dozen sites in France, with the loss of 600 jobs. More, Doux started re-exporting frozen chickens and mince (minerai, for nuggets, lasagna, etc.) from Brazil to France, further endangering its own contracted breeders.

Doux hoped to conquer the world, claiming chicken as the universal food. But the price for Doux is a massive increase in debt, not least because Doux wants to maintain family control. Albeit in 2003 Charles Doux ends up ceding operational control to a business school type without a background in agriculture.

Judgment day had long been deferred because Doux’s reporting remained limited and opaque, aided by a compliant local Breton auditing firm. Moreover, Doux had reached the status of ‘national champion’ and ‘too big to fail’, with France’s assorted public financial/industry policy authorities (seemingly near universally incompetent in grasping the national interest, with a soupçon of corruption) – here the Comité interministériel de restructuration industrielle (Ciri) and the Fonds stratégique d’investissement (FSI) – scurrying belatedly to put a finger in the dyke. Meanwhile, contracted breeders and suppliers don’t get paid. Ultimately, retrenched employees and contractors also pay the price.

By 2010, Doux had acquired debt of over €700 million, €230 million on its Brazilian operation, over €200 million on French soil and €280 million unpaid to suppliers – all this with merely €65 million in company capital, and Doux family equity of a trivial €5 million. More, in the two years 2009-10, the company paid dividends totalling €3 million and siphoned €17.2 million in ‘management fees’ to the family holding company Agropar. A national champion indeed.

Groupe Doux was one of the first things on the plate for the new President François Hollande and the Minister for Industrial Renewal Arnaud Montebourg in May 2012. A program of salvation was slowly ground out, involving lead creditor Barclays taking equity, but Charles Doux pulled the plug at the eleventh hour in putting the company into receivership to save the familial ‘integrity’ of the company (i.e., his own control). Since 2013, an export-oriented Doux has survived erratically under a succession of consortia ownership. The model remains unchanged.

The agro-industrial lie, in sum

Incorporating the entirety of the costs of production and the casualties of anarchic global competition and its cyclicality (the classic ‘hog cycle’ in operation!), the agro-industrial model cannot be judged either a paragon of productivity or of efficiency. (Note that soya, probably GM, is now de rigueur in French agro-industrial feed, so that destruction of the Amazon due to ever-expanding soya cultivation has to be added to the cost equation.)

The economic rewards across the extended supply chain hierarchy are distributed in a vastly unequal manner, with farmers and factory workers remunerated on the dregs. Yet even the most ruthlessly exploited are tied to the system that give them a bare sustenance. Some farmers have left the system but lack coordinated clout to alter the entrenched trajectory.

Add another ‘market externality’ – rampant ‘unhealthy eating’ (« malbouffe »)[1] among the French in general – facilitated by poisoning of the raw product and further poisoning through the manufacturing process, neatly hidden by lack of appropriate labelling that the lobby has fought for years to prevent. Figures available to mid-2020 estimated that 14% of French were obese and one in two overweight. Reflected in higher rates of cancers, cardiac failure and diabetes, in 2019 the Cour des comptes put the cost of obesity to the exchequer at €22 billion. In mid-2020, the Covid pandemic brought more across the board weight gain and 75% of under-50s Covid victims in reanimation reflecting comorbidity with obesity-related ailments.

As the weekly Le Canard Enchaîné noted in August 2012 during the company’s financial impasse: ‘The Doux model is a catastrophe for the consumer, tourists, developing countries [especially in Africa], the taxpayer, the worker, the farmer, the planet, and even the chickens.’ As the French say – Chapeau !

What with long term deindustrialization, France’s balance of trade has been in deficit for twenty years, and likely to remain so. In 2020, France had an estimated net surplus of €4.7 billion in agro-industrial products (INSEE figures). That, with an odious almost €17 billion 2020 net surplus in military-related exports, French officials seemingly have the mentality that beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to offsetting the ongoing trade deficit.

Thus the polluted water and algae infested coastlines remain simply the cost of doing business. Perennial commissions and reports follow each other but remain ultimately token, with ongoing real expenditure anything but token. The French agricultural, industrial and political establishments refuse to face the music.

This is the flip side of the Glory that is France.

Select References

[1] Natalie Gandais & Alain Lipietz, ‘France: Epicentre of the “Malbouffe” Crisis’, Green European Journal, 1 March 2013.

[2] Philippe Le Goffe, ‘The Nitrates Directive, Incompatible with Livestock Farming? The Case of France and Northern European Countries’, Notre Europe: Jacques Delors Institute, 30 May 2013.

[3] John Helmer, ‘What Impact Russia’s Counter-Sanctions? …’,, 2 September 2014.

[4] Julie Lallouët-Geffroy, ‘Le fléau des algues vertes empoisonne toujours la Bretagne’, Reporterre, 15 December 2016.

[5] Angelique Chrisafis, ‘It can kill you in seconds’: the deadly algae on Brittany’s beaches’, The Guardian (U.K.), 8 September 2019.

[6] Venus Bivar & Tamar Whited, ‘Industrial French food and its critics’, Modern & Contemporary France, 28:2, 2020.

[7] Marie-Laure Augère-Granier, ‘The EU Pig Meat Sector’, European Parliamentary Research Service, September 2020.

[8] Hanqin Tian, ‘A comprehensive quantification of global nitrous oxide sources and sinks’, Nature, 7 October 2020.

[9] Cour des comptes, Evaluation of Public Policy to Combat the Proliferation of Green Algae in Brittany, July 2021.

Evan Jones is a retired political economist from the University of Sydney. He can be reached