Society's opinion of agriculture has changed. The world of agriculture is misunderstood and far removed from the rest of society, which must adapt to new expectations within the agricultural domain while agriculture reinvents itself. Virginie Allaire-Arrivé, former Advisor to the Chairman of the APCA and now Director of Coop de France Ouest, focuses here on how the relationship between agriculture and society is likely to change in the future. Indeed, developments in the farming trade and the emergence of problems such as public health, financing for agricultural policies and animal well-being suggest that the change will be a profound one. For now, an entire relationship must be (re)built to improve dialogue and provide for the needs of all those involved.
Over just a few years, many misunderstandings have accumulated between the agriculture sector and the rest of society. The discrepancy between today’s agricultural realities and people's image of them, the discrepancy between the constant attacks against agriculture, its practices and its products on the one hand and the positive image of it that persists in public opinion1 on the other, the different pace of living that farmers follow in comparison with other people, although they share the same hopes, and the discrepancy between the expectations of citizens and consumer behavior all demand that we closely study the connection between agriculture and society with a view to rebuilding it.
Many attempts have been made to analyze how we arrived at this point. Most of them point out that the increasingly urban population began to lose its bearings and eventually developed an idealized vision of the agriculture of yesteryear. Long before the French, the British experienced this phenomenon following their rural exodus in the early 19th century. Farmers feel that this situation is unjust. Indeed, we have just experienced 50 years of very rapid progress, from a historical perspective, in the technological, economic and social domains. French agriculture broke out of its underdeveloped state, and farmers escaped their poverty. France exorcised its fears of famine and subjugation by achieving food independence.
In 1945, one farmer fed 2.5 people; by 2005, that same farmer was feeding 60. Dinner plates are full, land use is carefully planned and life expectancy has never been higher – and farmers have played a key role in these accomplishments.
Despite this, their voices are apparently going unheard, which makes them uneasy.
The economic context of deregulation and open markets is not enough to explain such profound suspicion of farmers. Their very connection with society is being called into question, and the knife cuts both ways: society may be seeing agricultural activity under a new light, but farmers themselves are also expressing new expectations for the society in which they now live.
What does the future hold for the relationship between agriculture and society?
Several divisions have already become clear, suggesting that three variables will, to varying degrees, define the relationship between agriculture and society in the future. In fact, these variables are already present in the form of faint but insistent signals.
In the professional sphere, the "commonplace" nature of agriculture will take root. In a sector that has spent 50 years cultivating its "uniqueness" and that of its services (ad hoc business and tax regimes, structural policies, development services, etc.), that term is likely to come up against some resistance. Increasing numbers of corporate organizations (20% of all farms), employees (28% of workers) and operations run outside of the family context, as well as higher levels of initial education, suggest that agriculture now shares more common ground with other economic activities and has entered into the jurisdiction of common law. The new expectations young farmers have for professional development structures set up by their elders clearly demonstrate that a revolution is underway. One indication of this new mindset was the creation of the agricultural fund (fonds d'agriculture) by the 2005 French Framework Law on Agriculture, modeled after the business fund (fonds de commerce) initiative. The indicator that best illustrates this change is the recent phenomenon of workers leaving their jobs 'early'2, in other words, for reasons other than economic difficulty. With this development, agriculture can now be just one phase of a diverse professional career. Although agriculture can still be a "passion," it is no longer seen as a vocation. This is an important cultural shift with direct consequences for the identity of agriculture and farmers.
In the societal sphere, French society is experiencing several sweeping trends.
The relationship with technological progress is changing as it becomes less synonymous with social progress. The relationship with living things and with death is changing and calling into question the consumption of meat products, as illustrated by recent opinion campaigns on animal well-being. Public health issues are emerging and issues of food security are resurfacing, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. Survey after survey shows that citizens consider agriculture's main role to be keeping the population fed.3High levels of demographic growth around the world and the perception of increasing geopolitical risk tend to heighten this concern. Health issues, which provoke considerable anxiety within the population, are far more politically visible than they were several years ago. Between the fight against obesity and questions about the impact of pesticides and GMOs, farmers will be in the hot seat more and more frequently. The framework for this debate has yet to be clearly established, despite the fact that French and European standards are among the most stringent in the world. Who is responsible for checking quality, health safety and production methods of imported products? Consumer associations are conspicuously absent from this controversy, as demonstrated by their lack of comment on the release of the European Food and Veterinary Office (FVO)4 report that severely criticized the health control system in Brazil.
In the political sphere, the French are growing increasingly concerned about European, national and local finances. In France, the debt burden accumulated by local governments over the past 25 years is becoming a political and social issue that should trigger efforts to reign in spending. On the European level, an EU budget limited to 1% of GDP leaves very little room to maneuver. In both contexts, agricultural support policies have been deemed excessive by the majority of citizens and the political class, and are likely to pay the price of a readjustment. Up to now, and particularly since the 1992 CAP reform, taxpayers have been picking up the tab left by consumers. In the current tight budget conditions, this delicate balance will be called into question, particularly in light of high prices.
What consequences could this have, and what lessons can we learn from it??
Several consequences are probable, like a puzzle to be put together. Some of those that most affect professional agricultural organizations include:
> Recreating forums for dialogue and structuring debates.
The agricultural sector has traditionally participated in French institutions by means of officers elected from within its ranks and professional representatives who sit in on the various meetings. Over the last ten years, however, a fundamental shift has taken place, and public debate is occurring with increasing frequency outside of these structured frameworks, moving into "communities," think tanks and similar organizations and NGOs, or even conducted virtually in the blogosphere. The connection between agriculture and society now relies on these new contexts as well.
The ability to open up controversial subjects for debate and to control form, which is just as important as content, will be determining factors; farmers and their representatives must cultivate the new skill of debate engineering.5
> Adapting services for farmers to meet their changing needs.
The standard response applied to major technological and economic transitions is no longer appropriate. Agricultural organizations must therefore begin or accelerate the process of change in order to meet these new needs as effectively as possible.
> Adapting agricultural policies to embrace diversity.
This is by no means the easiest step, since it is extremely difficult to provide "customized" solutions without introducing excessive complexity, all the while keeping a consistent overall approach without exceeding a budget that certainly will not increase, and may even decrease. The excessive complexity and administration of the past several years is now being widely rejected by farmers themselves, requiring the invention of new solutions.
Society's perspective on agriculture has changed: it is more demanding than before and riddled with contradictions, but never indifferent. Food-related issues are among the main concerns for the French, not only in terms of health but also of product availability at affordable prices. This new perspective can be a stroke of luck for the world of agriculture if it organizes itself to respond.