French farmers up in arms over call to cut cow numbers for sake of climate

France  REUTERSStephane Mahe
MAY 25, 2023 LISTEN
© REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

French farmers' associations say they're angered by what they see as the latest attack on their livelihood: a recommendation by France's national audit office to reduce cattle herds as part of efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The Court of Accounts, the body responsable for evaluating public spending, this week advised the French government to set out "a strategy to reduce cattle herds" in line with France's commitment to reduce methane emissions

These commitments "necessarily call for a significant reduction in livestock", the court wrote as part of an assessment of the hefty subsidies that France allocates to beef and dairy farmers.

It came as the government unveiled a new plan to speed up cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, targeting a reduction of 50 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. 

That includes a target to cut emissions from agriculture by nearly 20 percent over the same period, without specifying how.

Farmers 'hurt'

With more cows than any other country in Europe, French cattle farms are estimated to generate almost half of all emissions from the French agricultural sector, and around 12 percent of the country's emissions as a whole.

The sector knows it has a part to play in fighting global warming, but cutting herds is not the answer, according to Arnaud Rousseau, head of the National Federation of Agricultural Workers' Unions, FNSEA.

He told Franceinfo radio that his members were "angered and hurt" by the court's conclusions, which he said were simplistic. 

Rousseau pointed to alternative measures such as changing cows' diets to reduce the amount of methane they produce by digesting.

Meanwhile the French Interprofessional Association for Cattle and Meat, Interbev, argued in a statement that the pastures on which cows graze help capture carbon emissions and protect biodiversity.

Reducing French herds would only lead to the country importing more beef, it warned, and from sources that may be less sustainable.

The outcry prompted France's Minister of Agriculture and Food Security, Marc Fesneau, to post a lengthy defence on Twitter, in which he pointed to the environmental benefits of farming and concluded that "we need livestock farmers more than ever".

The Dutch example

But even factoring in the upsides, cattle farming remains one of the highest-emitting parts of the food chain.

Not only do cows produce methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but yet more damaging nitrous oxide is released both from from fertilisers used to grow cattle feed and the manure left behind.

And studies indicate that efforts to reduce the sector's climate damage, such as food supplements that reduce gas or selective breeding of less gassy varieties, will only offset a small percentage of emissions at best. 

Those factors led the Netherlands, which has some four million heads of cattle compared to more than 17 million in France, to decide to slash the number of animals it farms by close to a third. 

In 2021 the government allocated more than €24 billion to buy out livestock farmers over the following decade. 

That plan triggered fierce protests by farmers, who formed a new political party and swept regional elections earlier this year, leaving implementation uncertain. 

Herds declining

Even without government intervention, the number of cows farmed in France has been falling for several years. 

According to official figures, in 2021 it stood at 17.3 million, compared to 19.1 million in 2011 and 20.3 million in 2000.

France's agriculture ministry projects that it will continue to fall to around 15 million by 2035 and 13 million by 2050. 

The Court of Accounts points to low earnings and harsh working conditions as reasons why some cattle farms are downscaling or closing altogether. 

Instead of propping up the whole sector with expensive subsidies, its report suggests, the government should revise its policies to better support sustainable farms and encourage others to adopt emission-reducing practices.

Farmers whose businesses are neither profitable nor sustainable should be helped to retrain for other jobs, it recommends.