FNSEA, France’s agribusiness war machine in the name of farmers’ defence

This article is a case study of our investigation on the Copa-Cogeca, the lobby group representing dominant farmers' trade unions and cooperatives in Brussels, and its lobbying against a serious greening of the 2021-2027 Common Agricultural Policy.

Copa-Cogeca has always been a key player in Brussels CAP debates, but the national farmers’ associations that make up its membership, such as the French Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d’Exploitants Agricoles (FNSEA) also play a fundamental role. More so since many important aspects of the CAP are being increasingly renationalised.

Its motto might be “The united voice of farmers and their cooperatives in the European Union”, but Copa-Cogeca’s positions have to accommodate sometimes conflicting views: the various national federations of farmers and cooperatives composing its membership represent rather different types of agriculture and, sometimes, agribusinesses.

As a consequence, national farmers’ unions such as the FNSEA often need to, and do, lobby EU decision-makers for their own interests in addition to Copa-Cogeca's activities.

France receives the highest amount of CAP subsidies in the EU, and its government considers the CAP a strategic national priority in EU budget negotiations. Successive French governments' positions in Brussels have remained close to those of the FNSEA, regardless of political orientation. SidenoteFouilleux, Eve, and Matthieu Ansaloni. The common agricultural policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. On 18 September 2020 FNSEA’s President Christiane Lambert was elected Copa’s President, the first woman to ever be elected to these two positions.

FNSEA is much more than just a farmer’s trade union: it has been the co-manager, together with large sections of the French State, of France’s agricultural system for the past 50 years. SidenoteFor French readers, the book La forteresse agricole: une histoire de la FNSEA (Fayard, 2004) by investigative journalist Gilles Luneau is an absolute must-read on the subject. Created in 1946, FNSEA has by far remained the largest farmers’ union in France, with its young farmers’ branch Centre National des Jeunes Agriculteurs (CNJA – now JA).

Key to the union's "war machine" power are the local agricultural chambers, who provide very important services to farmers such as navigating CAP subsidies and providing technical support and training.

France’s 111 agricultural chambers have a total budget of €750 million, and FNSEA currently controls the absolute majority in all of them but seven. The national federation of agriculture chambers (APCA) lobbies decision-makers in Paris and Brussels, where it is the other French full member of COPA.

Despite an agrarian ideological tradition professing the unity of the agricultural world, the FNSEA represents many different farming interests, with a composite membership representing regions, categories of farmers, and 31 specialised associations (cereals, oilseeds & protein crops, milk, meat, fruits & vegetables, wine etc).

“Farmers” are by no means a politically and economically consistent group. Internal negotiations are permanent within the union to combine, for instance, the interests of crop growers and livestock farmers, wine producers, small and large farms.... While crop growers such as the powerful associations of French wheat (AGPB) and sugarbeets (CGB) producers have historically tended to dominate the union, these negotiations are never easy.

The four other farmers trade unions in France, Coordination Rurale (more conservative), Confédération Paysanne and the much smaller MODEF (both more progressive) are all splinter groups from the FNSEA; but never managed to seriously challenge its dominance. The JA formally belongs to the FNSEA, but has some political autonomy and tends to defend more progressive positions. SidenoteFor instance, French MEP Jérémy Decerle, a farmer and former JA president until he was elected an MEP in the Renew group (on the LREM list created by current French president Macron), is calling these days to “rethink the CAP subsidies per hectare to get them to support workers more”, which departs from FNSEA’s position on the matter.

The FNSEA is also the only farmers’ union sitting in the French Agriculture Council (Conseil de l’Agriculture Française - CAF), an organisation it created in 1966 that includes the Crédit Agricole (the largest bank providing loans to French farmers), the Mutualité Sociale Agricole (French farmers’ health and pension fund) and Groupama (a farming insurance that has now become a global insurance company).

According to the FNSEA’s EU lobbying registration, all the organisations members of the CAF are represented in the EU through a common lobbying structure called the European Bureau of French Agriculture (Bureau Européen de l’Agriculture Française – BEAF), with a lobbying budget between 300,000 and 400,000€ per year.

The BEAF also represents many specialised national associations who also belong to the FNSEA, including the powerful associations of French wheat (AGPB) and sugarbeets (CGB) producers – AGPB for instance chairs COPA’s cereals working group. FNSEA also declares a 800,000€-900,000€ lobbying budget in Paris.

Opposing the European Green Deal in Brussels

FNSEA’s position on the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies has been hostile from the start.

Already clear in its March 2020 submission to the public consultation, this is reinforced in FNSEA's letters to French Commission officials such as Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton, and Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, then-Deputy Director of the EU Agriculture Commissioner's cabinet. SidenoteCatherine Geslain-Lanéelle is the former Director-General of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) (2006-2013), and was the EU candidate for the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). She was previously the Director-General of the French Ministry of Agriculture and Food. She has now left Wojciechowski’s cabinet and become Director of Veterinary and Plant Health Questions, Food and Forestry in the Council’s General Secretariat’s DG LIFE (Agriculture, Fisheries, Social Affairs, Health).

FNSEA used very strong language, opposing engaging farming “on the path to degrowth, with uncertain environmental benefits”. It asked for spanners to be put in the wheels, calling for impact assessments on farmers’ revenues for each measure “that could be seen as a constraint or a norm”, opposing quantitative pesticides and fertilisers reduction targets as these would be “disconnected from any scientific approach”, and that existing toxic pesticides are only replaced “once an alternative is available”.

They did not utter a word on the need for CAP subsidies to be spent on supporting farmers towards more environmentally friendly practices. FNSEA opposes any hard, binding environmental measure at the EU level that would be tied to CAP subsidies, hoping it can sufficiently influence France’s own Strategic Plan SidenoteUnder the proposed new CAP, each member state is expected to draft a Strategic Plan to tailor the CAP’s implementation to its own context, the latest step in this policy’s renationalisation. to its wishes.

For this, it can try to use its various lobbying and political allies in Brussels. It finds common ground with Copa-Cogeca and many of its other members, but FNSEA also belongs to dozens of specialised EU lobby associations through its own internal specialised associations – there is more or less one for each different agricultural product in Brussels – and most oppose the Farm to Fork Strategy (see for instance the position of UECBV, the EU lobby of livestock and meat industries).

Other structures, such as the European Landowners Organisation, think-tanks such as Farm Europe, and lobby consultancies can all help by providing insights, lobbying services, and access to decision-makers.

FNSEA’s interests in Brussels of course count on the support of France’s Permanent Representation and the French Agriculture Minister at Council meetings. The French Government's current position may also, nevertheless, be influenced by voters generally very supportive of the Green Deal, with an eye on the 2022 presidential elections.

In the European Parliament, FNSEA’s interests have lost a bit of weight in the current legislature because of the relative demise of their traditional ally, right-wing party Les Républicains (LR), member of the European People’s Party. With only one MEP left in the Agriculture Committee, LR has been replaced by Macron’s more centrist party La République en Marche (Renew group) and the extreme-right party Rassemblement National, the latter usually considered too extreme by the others to have much influence in the committee, now dominated by German and Italian MEPs.

But the EPP itself remains an ally: as we write, MEP Norbert Lins, the EPP chair of Agriculture Committee, is echoing the position of the agribusiness industry by calling the Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, to do an impact assessment of the Farm to Fork strategy, taking into account the impact the strategy might have on farmers’ income and agricultural production levels in the EU, a tweet “liked” by Copa-Cogeca, Euroseeds (the seeds lobby), the European Landowners Organisation, a BASF lobbyist, a sugar industry lobbyist, one of Farm Europe’s directors...

Despite its opposition to a green CAP reform, the union is well aware that climate change is a reality for farmers, with more and more droughts, late frosts, and extreme weather events, and it has recently adopted a new strategy to “turn the climate challenge into an opportunity for agriculture”.

Their plan, however, is entirely voluntary.

It include reaching carbon “neutrality” by 2050 by cutting CO2 emissions, increasing carbon sinks, and using 100 per cent carbon-free energy sources, which positions their members to benefit from public subsidies planned for the ecological transition at the national and EU levels.

Some of this is laudable of course (such as increasing carbon sinks through eg agroforestry even though the ways soils can really stock CO2 in the long run remain largely unknown), but voluntary measures are weak, and some proposals such as subsidising the production of agrofuels are worrying; as the EU’s biofuels policy debacle demonstrated, the latter are incentives to destroy biodiversity and burn soil carbon.

Representing farmers, but which ones?

Farmers’ despair and political violence in France gives FNSEA a lot of leverage, all the more so that there has always been a strong support for farmers in the French public opinion (much less for the agribusiness industry). As such the union tends to get what it wants from French governments, including recently a derogation on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides to treat sugarbeets despite France’s banning these destructive insecticides in 2018.

But whether the union is really using this leverage to address the root causes of farmers’ woes is debatable, because it is dominated internally by both large, export-oriented crop growers, and agribusinesses. Just as with Copa-Cogeca (see Section), agribusiness interests are very powerful within FNSEA, and for decades the union has embraced the industrialisation of agriculture.

The blurring within the union of the interests of farmers with those of large agribusiness corporations was never as visible as under FNSEA’s former President, late Xavier Beulin. Beulin was born a farmer, was FNSEA’s chairman between 2010 and 2017, and also Chief Executive of multinational corporation Avril, the largest oilseed and protein crop processor in France. SidenoteFor the past four years, Avril has been among the biggest clients of Brussels' lobby shop Hill & Knowlton.

Avril’s main shareholder is the French Federation of Oilseed and Protein Crop Producers (FOP), itself one of the specialised associations of the FNSEA. Beulin was also the president of the European Oilseeds Alliance, and sat on the board of many other high level public and private institutions. This multiplication of roles gave the man a lot of power in French politics, as well as the possibility, according to former MEP Corinne Lepage, to use COPA to defend its own personal economic interests in EU bioofuels policy debates.

Under the current FNSEA President, Christiane Lambert, the confusion of interests is not as visible. But, be it at the local or national level of the union, the interests of agricooperatives, and all the agribusinesses they control, have a huge influence on the union’s positions. The largest French agri-cooperatives are multi-billion euros businesses that control hundreds of private agribusiness and food companies. SidenoteEven though these remain comparatively smaller than the largest, more concentrated cooperatives of Northern Europe, like BayWa or Sudzucker (Germany), Friesland Campina (Netherlands), Arla foods (Sweden) for dairy products or, for the meat, Danish Crown.

FNSEA’s inner contradiction is that the interest of its agribusiness members is to source their supplies at the cheapest possible price to be competitive on international markets, a strategy supported by the French state and the EU’s trade policy, which goes directly against the interests of farmers who need to earn a decent income. The historical goal of the union to industrialise French agriculture has created a very powerful industry, but also led to the destruction of family farms and rural communities.

Today, more than half of French farmers’ revenue would be negative without CAP subsidies, which act as an indirect subsidy to support EU agribusiness industries’ international competitiveness. The overall trend is towards a worsening of the situation. FNSEA strongly defends the need to keep CAP subsidies flowing to keep the poorest farmers out of bankruptcy (the CAP budget until 2027 has already been agreed in July 2020 and France is expected to receive €62.4 billion), but this position also serves the interests of its agribusiness members.

Another key ingredient to FNSEA’s power in France is that, whether they belong to it or not, farmers have to pay fees to structures that are controlled by the FNSEA.

Called “voluntary mandatory fees” for “Contribution volontaire obligatoire” (CVO), these quasi-private taxes feed the budget of inter-professional associations – “interprofessions” in French – that have been dominated for decades by the FNSEA. SidenoteA new law was introduced in France in 2014 forcing the inter-professional associations to include farmers’ trade unions representing “at least 70% of the votes expressed in agricultural chambers elections”.

For example, all French cereal growers have to pay a CVO on their harvests’ sale (currently 0,63€/ton) to the inter-professional association Intercéréales, but the only farmers’ associations represented in Intercéréales until 2018 were FNSEA members AGPB and AGPM (the latter representing corn growers). It took a direct action by Coordination Rurale to get a membership seat (through their own specialised association France Grandes Cultures).

The Confédération paysanne eventually refused to join because the farmers’ college had been composed in such a way that they would not have had any power. They had managed to obtain seats in the milk interprofession – CNIEL – in 2011, after a brutal conflict that even included a hunger strike.

Inter-professional associations include other players than just producers, and act as umbrella organisations representing the whole commodity chain to defend an industry-driven vision.

Intercéréales, for example, also has grain traders and millers in its membership. It spends most of its budget on research & development, but also 21.5 per cent of it on communication and lobbying. Other inter-professional associations are structured in a similar fashion, using millions of euros collected from farmers and others players in the industry to lobby decision-makers in Paris and Brussels. SidenoteVarious inter-professional associations are for instance registered on the French and EU lobbying transparency registers, such as the seeds professional association GNIS (Groupement national interprofessionnel des semences et plants), the milk professional association CNIEL (Centre national Interprofessionnel de l'Economie Laitière) or Intercéréales. But also the CIVB, representing the Bordeaux wines industry, or Interbev, representing the livestock and meat sector.

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