Food security – French farmers increased grain production to compensate for losses in Ukraine, which had to cut agricultural exports after Russia invaded in February 2022. The war has prompted France to consider food independence and, as it continues, raises questions about France’s long-term strategy.

“The crisis in Ukraine destabilized us much earlier than we expected,” Laurent Rosseau, director of the French vegetable oil and protein trade association Terres Univia, told RFI. at the annual agricultural fair in Paris.

The NGO brings together producers and exporters of crops such as rapeseed, peas, soybeans and sunflower, which is the main source of vegetable protein for farm animals.

The war in Ukraine “accelerated our awareness of dependence“- said Rosso.

More on this story on the Spotlight on France podcast:

France in the spotlight, episode 90 © RFI

Before the war, France annually imported about 400,000-450,000 tons of sunflower meal for animal feed from Ukraine, which produced two-thirds of the world’s sunflower supply.

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

With the war blocking Ukrainian exports and straining farmers’ ability to plant, France had to find ways to make up the difference.

French farmers have already produced between 300,000 and 400,000 tonnes of sunflower meal, and “we have gradually been able to make up the shortfall quite quickly,” Rosso said.

“We have increased the amount of land for French production,” he said.

“Market demand contributed to this, and our farmers were mobilized to sow sunflower wherever possible. You do this through crop rotation — replacing, for example, corn or other crops.’

French wheat exports are on the rise

Ukraine was also one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat and corn, mostly to developing countries, whose needs for animal feed are growing as meat consumption increases.

Most of the grain was sent by ship, and Russia blocked Ukrainian ports. Although both countries signed the UN-backed Black Sea Grains Initiative to allow shipments from the three ports, the amount shipped was far less than before the war.

In addition, arable land was destroyed by the fighting, which destroyed an estimated 30 percent of the agricultural surface.

Ukraine is expected to produce no more than 16 million tons of wheat in 2023, or half as much as in 2021.

Grain supply problems existed even before the war with increased demand from China and a shift in global markets due to Covid, and France – Europe’s biggest agricultural producer – was already looking to export more wheat.

The war accelerated the situation: French wheat exports increased by 25 percent to countries including Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco, according to the French grain trade association Intercéréales.

Bread independence

With the ongoing war making forecasts difficult, no one knows whether French exports will continue to grow.

“The answer will depend primarily on the availability of French wheat next season,” said Philippe Hoisele, spokesman for Intercéréales.

The association would like France to position itself as a real alternative to Ukrainian exports even after the end of the war.

As for sunflower, the sector would like to reduce France’s dependence on imports.

“It’s important for us to become more independent,” Rosso said. “It’s not about being self-sufficient, because that’s never going to happen.”

France is the most “independent” in Europe» the country in this regard produces more than 50 percent of the plant protein needs for animal feed, compared to 35 percent in Europe, according to Ross.

“It needs to be preserved and improved. Our goal is to produce 60 to 65 percent of our animal feed,” he said, adding that France could indeed produce all the oil it needs.

Last year, France was able to plant enough sunflowers to produce 120,000 tons of oil, which it previously imported from Ukraine.

Deficiency of seeds

“In Europe, we can be self-sufficient in human food production,” Rosso said.

But including animal feed, France and Europe struggle to grow enough to meet overall needs, not least because they lack the capacity to produce seeds.

Sunflower seed crops are different from cash crops, and Ukraine has been a leading producer of both due to land availability and technical capabilities.

When the war started, the seed growers stopped working. And now, even if we were able to manage the production of oil and proteins, we are still very concerned about the seeds,” said Rosso.

The focus is on finding growers in France who can produce enough to make up for expected future shortages as the war drags on and seed stocks fail to replenish.

According to Ross, “The question is, once the war is over — and I hope it will be soon — how do we work with Ukraine to develop our independence together in a balanced and sustainable way for everyone?”

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