France eyes agricultural independence as war hits Ukrainian grain supply

By Sarah Elzas - RFI
France  Andrey BorodulinAFP
MAR 19, 2023 LISTEN
© Andrey Borodulin/AFP

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.

More on this story in the Spotlight on France podcast

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.

France also imported 120,000 tonnes of sunflower oil for human consumption.

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 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,” he said. 

“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.”

French wheat exports on the rise

Ukraine was also one of the world's largest exporters of wheat and corn, mostly to developing countries whose demands for animal feed are on the rise with an increase in meat consumption.  

Most of the grain was sent out by ship, and Russia blocked Ukrainian ports. Though the two countries signed the UN-backed Black Sea Grain Initiative to allow shipments out of three ports, the amount sent out was much less than before the war.

Plus, cropland was destroyed by fighting, which destroyed an estimated 30 percent of agricultural surfaces.

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 percent to countries including Algeria, Egypt and Morocco, according to the French grain trade association, Intercéréales.

Grain independence

Because the ongoing war makes predictions difficult, no one knows if the rise in French exports will last.

“The answer will depend first on the availability of French wheat for next season,” said Philippe Heusele, spokesperson for 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 percent of its vegetable protein needs for animal feed compared to 35 percent for Europe, according to Rosso.

“We need to preserve this, and improve on it. Our goal is to produce 60 to 65 percent of our animal feed,” he said, adding that France could actually produce all the cooking oil it needs.

France was able to plant enough sunflowers last year to produce the 120,000 tonnes of oil it previously imported from Ukraine.  

Seed shortage

“We are capable, in Europe, of being self-sufficient for human food production,” said Rosso.

But factoring in animal feed, 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 because of its land availability and technical capacity.

“ When the war started, the seed growers stopped working. And now, even if we've been able to manage the production of oil and proteins, we're still very worried about seeds,” said Rosso.

The focus is 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.

According to Rosso: “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?” 

Find more on this story in the Spotlight on France podcast, episode 90.