by Bastien Gibert, consultant for WOAgri
IPSOS Public Affairs conducted a qualitative study in November 2003 entitled “L’avenir de l’agriculture: regards croisés agriculteurs – consommateurs” (The future of agriculture: a comparison of farmers’ and consumers’ opinions), at the request of the French ministry of Agriculture and Fishing, on the perceptions and visions of consumers and farmers concerning the challenges facing agriculture in terms of food, the environment and the economy.
This study is rich in useful lessons for us because it underlines the absence of cooperation between the parties involved in France and Europe in a strategic sector such as agriculture.
Indeed, there are great differences between the perceptions of the general public, consumers, farmers and politicians on the multiple stakes of agriculture.
But above all, this study reveals the absence of real proposals to lead agriculture out of the dead end it is now in. This denotes a loss of interest in the future of the agricultural sector in Europe, giving legitimacy to the position of those who consider agriculture as just an “adjustment variable” when we all know that it is a strategic sector.
This is why WOAgri’s mission is essential because the work it has done since December 2005, just like the proposals it has made, is a framework for coherent action in response to the expectations of consumers and farmers as well as the strategic challenges that are facing agriculture.
The study conducted by IPSOS Public Affairs on French consumers and farmers shows that the global vision of agriculture and the stakes it involves is totally divorced from reality.
In fact, according to this study, the general public and consumers consider agriculture “as an industry like any other and subject to the same risks”.
Agriculture is specific:
This situation shows that the set of characteristics that make agriculture a completely specific sector are no longer known and that this is a handicap for the agricultural world in terms of communication and, at the same time, is probably the result of poor communication. Because, unlike other economic sectors, agriculture is characterized by extremely volatile prices (from 1 to 35 for sugar!), a trend that is caused by a combination of three factors:
> Climatic risks,
> The imperfect structure of agricultural markets: there is a structural gap between supply and demand because of the rigidity of supply (length of production cycles, “micronisation” of supplies, the fact that land cannot be delocalized) storage difficulties and speculative trends,
> The coexistence of three types of risk: the uncertainty of farmers as to the quantity and quality of their production and the price they will finally be able to obtain.
Moreover, world prices for agricultural raw materials are not based on any economic reason for price structure, or supply and demand. They are exclusively the result of a strategy based on the lowest bidder on a world scale and are aligned on the lowest prices, even if these are obtained through social and environmental dumping.
Agriculture is strategic:
By underlining the fact that consumers and the general public consider that “agriculture is not part of the food chain” and that “its main function should be territorial management” the report reveals the profound lack of understanding of the stakes of agriculture, whether they are economic, social or environmental:
> Meeting future needs for food in a world that will count 9 billion inhabitants in 2050 compared to 6 billion today while fighting famine and poverty.
> Ensuring sustainable development and preserving the environment.
> Taking part, in a fair manner, in an international commercial system based on a regulated market.
Therefore, it is not surprising, in these circumstances, that the people polled made inappropriate recommendations wishing to promote a bipolar world agriculture characterized by “a European elite that would produce quality, at the heart of which France would play an important role, while the rest of the world’s farmers would take care of ‘feeding the planet’ by producing large quantities of standard goods”.
Besides the dangers that such recommendations imply in terms of food sovereignty and secure supplies, it is not by concentrating on high-quality production, which is by definition marginal, that farmers will be able to clear sufficient profits over time to make a living from their production and that consumers will be able to ensure a high level of food security.
This situation reveals a central issue which is that a profitable price for a farmer in the context of globalization and liberalization of international agricultural markets is totally ignored. Yet this is the big question that nobody is able to answer today…and which is essential for the future of Europe and, more generally, world food equilibrium.
The work of WOAgri:
This is why the work carried out by WOAgri since 2005 is fundamental:
> Re-informing the agricultural and non-agricultural world of the specificities and strategic stakes of agriculture in order to put an end to misinformation and poor communication that contribute to making agriculture an economic sector of secondary importance.
> Proposing concrete strategies and solutions to crises that are credible and ambitious while building the conditions for the emergence of a world governance of agriculture with the aim of initiating regulated liberalization of international agricultural exchanges.
> Enabling farmers to make a living from their production by placing the logic of “profitable prices” back at the heart of the mechanism of agricultural markets.
In this way, WOAgri will reconcile the expectations of consumers, farmers and politicians around a strategic vision of agriculture. Thus consumers will benefit from quality products and variety at economically justified prices. Farmers will in turn benefit from profitable and less volatile prices. States will at last be able to guarantee a certain level of food security and supplies.
WOAgri’s work will thus enable us to meet the great economic, social and environmental goals set by the international community thanks to a set of positive effects induced by a mechanism of regulated prices and responsible liberalization of agricultural exchanges:
> The WTO member states, and in particular the DCs, will benefit from more equitable international agricultural exchanges.
> Famine and poverty, caused by the downward trend and extreme volatility of agricultural prices will be warded off.
> The rural social fabric will be maintained in most regions of the world.
> Social and environmental dumping will be fought.
> Public health in DCs will be improved.
This poll therefore reveals that farmers are not understood, not even heard, by consumers and politicians concerning the challenges they face. Agricultural organizations are not able to rally the agricultural world around a cause, as was the case in the 1960s, or to impart the urgency of establishing a “contract with the future”, not only concerning research but the global equilibrium of our society.
However, we are convinced that our work, together with that of other prominent figures who understand that agriculture is one of the major factors of the future, will meet their goals and put an end to their isolation.