France launches €100m plant protein strategy: ‘We must regain agri-food sovereignty’

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

France's plant protein strategy targets sovereignty and sustainability. Can it deliver, without addressing animal production? / Pic: GettyImages-Bobex-17
France's plant protein strategy targets sovereignty and sustainability. Can it deliver, without addressing animal production? / Pic: GettyImages-Bobex-17

Related tags: plant protein, French agri-food policy

France has unveiled a national plant protein strategy that aims to increase domestic production of vegetable proteins for feed and human nutrition, boosting agri-food sovereignty and sustainability. However, in failing to address what campaigners say is the 'overconsumption' of animal proteins, critics argue the plan is 'doomed'.

France wants to increase the amount of land dedicated to the cultivation of plant species rich in protein by 40% by 2022 through its new national protein strategy, Minister of Agriculture and Food Julien Denormandie said yesterday (1 December). 

Currently, nearly a million hectares of French agricultural land is given over to crops like soy, peas, pulses, alfalfa and legumes. The French government wants to add a further 400,000 hectares in two years. By 2030, 'the surface [area] will be doubled to reach 8% of the useful agricultural surface, or 2 million hectares', the strategy stated.

Denormandie revealed this will be supported by a dedicated budget of €100m within the context of the ‘France Relance’ plan​, a roadmap to 'social, economic and ecological overhaul' that will see €1.2bn spent to 'build the France of 2030'. The cash will be spent on organising the downstream sector, research and development, the purchase of seeds and the promotion of pulse consumption at a shopper level.

For sovereignty and sustainability

Denormandie said that the plan, the result of a year-long consultation process, reflects the need to promote French agri-food independence.

“France is the leading agricultural power in Europe and yet our dependence on imports remains too great. My priority is clear: we must… regain agri-food sovereignty, and this cannot be done without the development of French production of vegetable proteins,”​ he commented.

Denormandie suggested that France is not ‘sufficiently autonomous’ in the production of vegetable proteins. For instance, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, the country produces half of the protein-rich material needed for animal feed.

The Ministry said that the strategy is therefore ‘first and foremost’ a sovereignty issue that aims to reduce dependence on world markets, and in particular the import of South American vegetable proteins such as soy. France imports 4.8m tonnes of soybeans each year for animal feed.

This means plant protein imports are also an ‘environmental challenge’, the Ministry for Agriculture suggested, noting that these imports can be linked to deforestation, forest degradation and the destruction of natural ecosystems in some producer countries.

Indeed, fresh data out of Brazil this week suggests that deforestation in the Amazon is gathering pace. The Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) released the latest figures for the period from 1 August 2019 to 31 July 2020. Deforestation in the Amazon increased by 9.5% compared to last year. This is the highest level since 2008: 11,088 km² have been destroyed, or 626m trees cut.

At the same time, the Ministry suggested, growing legumes promotes biodiversity and improves soil health by nitrogen ‘fixing’. Legumes grow in a symbiotic relationship with soil-dwelling bacteria. The bacteria take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, feeding the legumes. In exchange, the plant provides carbohydrates to the bacteria.

Green agri-food policy or greenwashing?

The strategy was welcomed by the Syndicat National de l’Industrie de la Nutrition Animale (SNIA), which represents the French animal nutrition sector.

“Our collective interest is indeed to strengthen the dynamics of French plant-protein production,”​ SNIA president François Cholat commented.

Domestic plant protein production will improve the sustainability of animal nutrition and, in turn, animal protein production, it was suggested. 

“[The French] animal nutrition sector is heavily invested in the sustainability of its supplies and the development of vegetable proteins in France will undoubtedly contribute to this," ​Cholat said. 

However, Greenpeace France rejected the government's plan as little more than greenwashing because it fails to address what the environmental campaign group sees as a fundamental flaw in the production system: an over-reliance on animal protein.

Pointing to deforestation in the Amazon, forests campaign manager Cécile Leuba insisted: “France has its share of responsibility for this environmental disaster.”

She stressed that ‘fine speeches’ from President Emmanuel Macron committing France to environmentally friendly aspirations have had ‘no effect’ due to the absence of ‘means and ambition’.

“The issue of imported deforestation is intimately linked to our industrial farming model and the overproduction and overconsumption of meat, eggs and dairy products,”​ continued Leuba.

In the strategy for plant proteins, the stated objective is to fight against the 'total protein dependence of our farms', she suggested. “Unfortunately, the issue of overproduction of meat, eggs and dairy products has been completely side-lined. As long as the government refuses to address this issue, we can already say that this strategy will be doomed."

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