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How French farmers are responding climate change

How French farmers are responding climate change

Bastien Papion hopes that income from his 290 hectares of crops can be boosted by earning carbon credits, even as yields fall due to measures he will carry out to reduce the carbon footprint, and the loss of pesticides banned by the EU.

Last week, it was haymaking time in Brittany, France.

Organic farmer Cédric Briand said hay time has come three weeks early, brought on by dry weather. On this 60-hectare dairy farm with 44 cows, which depends heavily on May grazing, Cédric will have to hope the dry weather won’t cut short the grazing days needed for profitable production and for organic specifications.

The dry spring is part of the climate change which Cédric estimates has reduced the farm’s milk production by 15% in the past 10 years. Because of this setback, Cédric and his two farming partners, Mathieu Hamond and Hervé Mérand, have purchased an extra 46 hectares to try to maintain farm income.

Many farmers here in the northwest of the country which is the EU’s agricultural powerhouse are fighting climate change.
However, farming areas further south in France are more severely affected by this year’s record drought. It is already affecting many regions north and northeast of the Loire, which divides northern and southern France.

According to meteorologists, climate change is directly responsible for the lack of rain.

The agriculture ministry has doubled a fund launched in April aimed at helping farmers deal with climate change, to €40m, and the government has said water companies could spend an extra €100m to help farmers.

Over the past 15 years, the average annual temperature has risen one or two degrees in western and coastal France, and by two or three degrees inland, says Christophe Sablé, president of the dairy production working group of the Chamber of agriculture of Loire Atlantique. He said that while there used to be consistent rainfall in the spring, and autumn, it is now unpredictable.

Brittany’s beef and dairy producers could be affected by these changes. They rely on stable weather for their grazing, which they are trying expand to lower the cost of production and carbon storage. Even here in the northwest, seven months of grazing are the maximum.

Brittany’s milk production growth has been slow due to instabilities in prices (now at 42c/litre), but also because of climate and environmental concerns.

Climate change is just as problematic for the growers of what is perhaps France’s most famous crop, the 800,000 hectares of grapes for a wine export trade worth €10bn per year.

Unseasonal frost has caused grapevine damage in four of five years. Growers must find new ways to adapt climate change. About 30% of 2021’s grape crop was destroyed.

Bastien Papion hopes that income from his 290 hectares of crops can be boosted by earning carbon credits, even as yields fall due to measures he will carry out to reduce the carbon footprint, and the loss of pesticides banned by the EU.

Bastien Papion hopes to increase his income from his 290 hectares, even though yields fall because of measures he will take to reduce carbon footprint and to prevent the EU from banning pesticides.

Bastien Papion, a 30-year-old Brittany tillage farmer, was looking anxiously at his wheat crop last week. Bastien will be downgrading his yield forecasts if it doesn’t rain, as the winds can dry out the land quickly in this coastal area. May is an important month for crop growth.

It’s about 1,000km away, but climate change seems much more real in France than in Ireland.

In recent years, Ireland has experienced significant climate changes, including the 2018 summer drought, difficult harvests, and severe winter storms. Farmers remained in good health and managed to survive.

France is not so lucky. After the fourth driest winter/spring since 1959, crop growers are now faced with a dilemma: irrigate winter wheat now or save water for the maize crop.

Spain and Portugal, next door, experienced droughts for six months from March through March. This left approximately 50% of farms at high risk of losing their crop yields. Drought is affecting all of northern Italy, with water levels at their lowest point in 50 years.

Farmers across the EU face many challenges day-today and month to-month. But they are becoming more difficult to solve because of climate change, which is becoming a longer-term and potentially existential threat.

Brittany’s Bastien does his part to combat climate change. Bastien is working to reduce the carbon footprint for his 290 hectares, while also trying to deal with the EU’s ban on more plant protection products.

Which is the greater challenge? He answers like a politician, “The biggest change is to do both together.”

“Obviously, yields will fall,” he warns. Like many French farmers, he is getting more and more interested in reducing the farm’s carbon footprint, not only to mitigate the climate change that could burn up France’s €76.3bn of annual agricultural production (for comparison, it is only €8.2bn in Ireland), but also for income by earning carbon credits and selling them to industries which use these purchased credits to offset their carbon emissions, thus improving their image among consumers.

Bastien is at an early stage of investigating carbon credits, but experts tell him it is possible to reduce his farm’s carbon footprint from 334 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year to only 82t, by cutting emissions and storing extra carbon in his soils.

At the current carbon credit price of €30/t (which is expected to rise significantly as time goes on), reducing the carbon footprint could be worth €15 per hectare to Bastien. The farm is still performing simulations and assessments, so this possibility is not likely.

Bastien warns that weather remains a big problem. “And there is not much we can do about that”. Bad weather could also impact carbon credits, in addition to reducing earnings and production. Ploughing, for example, was required because the weather was so bad in 2019, rather than the minimal tillage and no till towards which the farm was moving (because it reduces carbon emissions). Ploughing helped reduce carbon credits in 2019. Without ploughing, there might not have been any crop.

Fertilisers, both organic and synthetic, are the source of 90% of the farm’s emissions. The remaining 10% of farm emissions comes from fuel for machinery, and grain dryers. You can reduce emissions by using ammonium citrate instead of urea, organic manure instead or organic compost, and planting hedges.

There would be many difficult farming decisions along the way, as usual. Can the farm’s policy of swopping straw in order to get slurry and manure from neighbouring livestock farmers continue? In future, farmers may want to use their own slurry, and it may improve Bastien’s carbon footprint if he incorporates the straw on his farm. He can at least rely on the manure from the 70,000 broiler chicks he raises each year on the farm, which is managed by his mother.

Energy crops (some of the farm’s rapeseed and sunflower seed are already sold to make fuel, along with some maize silage for biogas) could reduce the footprint, but the soil is robbed of carbon when all this biomass goes to a fuel plant (unless
The fields are treated with digestate from biogas plant. Can profitable production continue if the EU continues to ban pesticides 50%? Bastien estimates that 10% of his wheat, barley and rapeseed yields have already been lost due to pesticides such seed dressings.

Bastien’s future worries include the possibility that organic fertiliser availability may decrease if society decides to get rid of both pesticides and livestock. This could also lead to the end of organic cropping.

Bastien is one five Brittany farmers who were identified as being committed climate action. This was during a visit by, a platform for journalists.

French farmers are likely to support the commitment to decarbonisation before it is too late if the drought conditions continue to intensify this year.

As the new CAP nears next January, there are many issues for them. Even that date is not set in stone. Some eastern member countries are calling for the new CAP to return to 2024. Many farmers in all member countries believe the new CAP should be put on hold while the EU focuses instead on maximising food productivity in a time of war in Europe.

Not all French farmers are equal
despite being at the forefront of the effects of global warming, they are interested in climate action. The dairy industry has pledged to reduce its carbon footprint 17% between 2015 and 2025, but only about 15,000 of France’s 51,600 dairy farms are involved in a national low carbon programme launched in 2015.

The agriculture ministry welcomes carbon credits as a way to get them on board (but only about 400 of France’s 390,000 farmers have yet committed to sell credits).

Authorities are also trying raise awareness at advisor and farm expert level. There’s no shortage of these decarbonisation experts to help farmers at the experimental dairy farm at Derval in Brittany, run by the Chamber of Agriculture of Loire Atlantique, working with the French Livestock Institute.

This 85-cow farm produces almost 713,000 litres per year of milk. The gross carbon footprint of this farm is 0.97kg of CO2 equivalent for each litre of milk. Carbon sequestration can reduce this number further to 0.91.

Derval’s biogas plant is a breakthrough. The farm produces 56,000 kilowatts of electricity per year (44% using robotic milking), but the plant can produce this much power in just 10 days. The anaerobic digestion plants receive 54 tonnes of raw material each day. This includes slurry and manure from the experimental farms and neighbouring livestock farms. A major source of feedstock is also waste byproducts from local food industries.

Sylvain Foray of the French Livestock Institute is also proud of the farm’s nitrogen balance. Sylvain participates in the Dairy 4 Future programme, which aims to reduce costs and reduce carbon footprint in five Atlantic milk regions, including Ireland. He claims that the 25% clover in the grass and the use of digestate from a biogas plant reduce synthetic nitrogen fertiliser at Derval by only 33kg per ha (mostly required to grow the maize crops and other crops that make up half the farm’s 106 ha). This reduces emissions like ammonia and nitrogen oxide, and also reduces water pollution. Sylvain says that the nitrogen surplus (inputs minus output) is only 89kg per ha. This compares to 200kg in Ireland or 180 in the Netherlands.

Teagasc figures for 2021 show that the average Irish dairy farm has a carbon footprint of 0.99 kg and 0.86 kg when carbon sequestration is considered. This is one of the lowest levels in the world, according Teagasc.

The dairy industry in Ireland is busy working on schemes to reduce the carbon footprint and protect water quality from excess nitrogen.

The focus in Ireland for the next ten years will be on reducing chemical nitrogen use by using organic manures and clover, and replacing calcium ammonium-nitrate with protected urinea.

Further measures to stabilise the dairy sector’s emissions will be taken through the Food Vision 2030 Dairy Group and the CAP Strategic Plan for 2023-2027.

Irish dairy farmers have strong incentives to reduce their carbon footprint. Co-ops pay valuable milk sustainability bonuses to farmers who take efficiency measures.

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