The time to eat better

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The indignation of the opinion after the rejection by the National Assembly, in May 2018, of an amendment to include in the law the prohibition of glyphosate in France before 2021, is a clear sign. The demand for healthier and "fair" food continues to grow among the French, as well as many other Westerners. And names like that of Monsanto, associated with both chemistry and agricultural genetics, now suffer from an image deficit comparable to that of the protagonists of the crisis of 2008 … To the point that Bayer, purchaser of the American company, decided to get rid of the brand.

Public authorities can no longer ignore this request. After having organized the first General States of Food, announced by Emmanuel Macron during his presidential campaign to, precisely, to win the favor of farmers and consumers denouncing the excessive power of mass distribution (where almost three quarters French food expenditure according to INSEE), the government was obliged to respond to the accusation – crystallized by the case of glyphosate to have ceded to former lobbies.

Richard Ferrand, then leader of the deputies of the Republic in progress (LRM), and Christophe Castaner, then Secretary of State for relations with the Parliament and delegate general of LRM, hastened to reassure the disappointed, promising respectively a parliamentary mission and a bill supporting the presidential promise of a ban within three years of the most hated herbicides.

Health, ethics and environment

Several phenomena explain this shift in public opinion, much more involved in the subject of food than a few years ago. From the mad cow crisis in the 1990s to the case of Lactalis' contaminated milk, which broke out in December 2017, including horse meat fraud in 2013 and eggs with fipronil in 2017, scandals in the agri-food sector are undoubtedly among the main drivers of this evolution. They question in particular the safety of industrial and processed products, whose presence on the French table has increased in recent decades.

Ethical motivation, propelled by the crisis experienced by the agricultural sector, is also a major factor. 2016, a black year for French agriculture, which saw the sector's contribution to gross domestic product fall by 8.4% according to INSEE, and a third of French farmers declare less than 350 euros of income per month according to Mutualité agricultural sector, has contributed significantly to raising awareness about the issues of value distribution in the food chain, and the gradual shift of margins downstream. Proof of this is the success of the brand C'est qui le patron!, Launched in November 2016 to guarantee fair remuneration for producers, and which in one and a half years has passed 50 million liters of fair milk, before proposing now also eggs, butter, pasta and pizzas.

To these motivations is added the environmental concern. The desire to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions – a quarter of which comes from agricultural production, largely devoted to animal feed – partly explains the growing number of vegetarians. Raising awareness about the effects of the use of chemical inputs (water and air pollution, irreversible damage to biodiversity and human beings) is at the root of the avalanche of emails and tweets that has flooded the majority MPs in connection with the glyphosate affair.

A concern that the awareness of demographic issues makes it even more pressing: while the warming and impoverishment of soils due to intensive agriculture cause a reduction of arable land, to feed the 10 billion people who will inhabit the planet in 2050 (compared with 7.5 today), agricultural production should increase by 70%!

Large groups attracted by the "natural" market

Alternatives to industrial agriculture and traditional distribution have flourished in recent years, thanks to growing consumer support. Two trends stand out in particular, often complementary. On the one hand, the return to a more "natural" and "artisanal" production and distribution model is popular. On the consumption side, the market for organic products continues to grow: between 2012 and 2017, it doubled to 8.4 billion euros and led to an increase in organic cultivated areas, which now constitute 6.6% of the 54% of the national territory dedicated to agriculture, according to the latest report of the Agency bio.

The purchase in short circuit is also gradually settling into the habits of the French, boosted by the multiplication of platforms facilitating the rapprochement between producers and consumers: in 2017, a third of them said they were already buying local, according to a study by Greenflex.

Beer, honey, mushrooms, but especially fresh vegetables and herbs from countless urban agriculture projects – sometimes promoted by local authorities – are now commonly produced in major cities, including Paris.

On the production side, permaculture, a movement born in Australia in the 1970s that promotes the creation of microferms for food and energy self-sufficiency, inspired by nature to minimize the consumption of resources, attracts The attention of an increasingly diverse and well-educated public: architects, lawyers, doctors are now numerous among the participants in the internships who initiate to its principles. And even large groups, attracted by this growing market, are becoming "natural".

In February, Danone, which, in 2017, spent $ 12.5 billion to acquire the American company specializing in organic and plant-based dairy products The White Wave, announced " a major evolution of its production model in France ". It will include the offer of ranges organic this year and 100% of products grown in the Hexagon " from regenerative agriculture » in 2025. Carrefour, which has been developing since 2013 an offer of products from animals raised without antibiotic treatment, as well as plant products grown without herbicides or pesticides, has committed in 2017 to the Paris city hall to offer sites for urban farmers. Monoprix continues the progressive adoption by producers of agroecological practices " as part of a dedicated program, All Cultiv'actors. And these are just some examples.

A challenge of competitiveness

On the other hand, new technologies are finally investing in agriculture and the agri-food industry, bringing additional solutions to the ecological transition. Robots, sensors and exploitation of big data promise a drastic reduction in the use of chemical inputs. Still expensive to acquire individually, they contribute to the development of a sharing economy between farmers, via a proliferation of co-farming which, by facilitating the exchange of machines, data, experiences or parcels, are also a source of empowerment [donner davantage de pouvoir, ndlr] and links.

The blockchain is emerging in the food industry to meet the growing demand for transparency and traceability: even retail giant Walmart has seized it to follow certain pathways. New vegan products – sales in supermarkets grew by 82% in 2016, to exceed 30 million euros according to Xerfi – mimic more and better steaks and sausages, to seduce the 30% of French looking to reduce their meat consumption.

"Greenwashing" and globalization

Many questions remain unresolved, however, and will undoubtedly affect the future of the food transition. Faced with the plurality of trends (organic, agroecology, PDO, fair price, fair trade, veganism, locavorism, etc.), often complementary but sometimes also in conflict, the meaning of "produce better and eat well" remains to be defined. And with it, the tradeoffs, hierarchies and synergies between the various trends …

The increasing distrust of consumers vis-à-vis the food industry makes it essential to put in place safeguards to avoid the risk of confusion between sincere initiatives and greenwashing [communication sur un positionnement écologique] : a requirement that is already evident in the world of organic, where many actors alert on the paradox of a growing industrialization of production.

The issue of accessibility of this "better food" should not be neglected either. Certainly, according to surveys, two thirds of French consumers say they agree to pay a higher price for products of better quality. Admittedly, the household budget devoted to food has increased from 35% in 1960 to 20% currently, in favor of sometimes less essential goods.

Certainly, as the British author Carolyn Steel explains, "The argument that the poorest can not pay more for food is skewed: we should rather ask ourselves why in our society people can not afford to eat well".

Nevertheless, in today's society, the prices of food from organic sources or distributed through short channels, which are higher because of the search for quality and decent wages, remain prohibitive for many inhabitants of major Western cities. .

And if one of the solutions, for the ecological footprint as for the balance of the household budget, would probably be to reduce the consumption of meat, how to assert such an argument vis-à-vis the new middle classes of the countries emerging or developing, for which a higher protein diet is a social marker? The difficulties encountered by the negotiations on the fight against global warming between the countries of the North, responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions since pre-industrial times, and the countries of the South, who fear the effects of climate change. new restrictions on their development, seem here to find a new declension.

As the climate challenge, that of the food transition is global, and implies a radical change of models and mentalities on the part of all actors. Consumer momentum is, however, a powerful driver and, at least in the West, it does not seem destined to decline.