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France is urging its farmers to produce more cut-price meat in a major U-turn on factory farming, with inflation hammering demand for organic pork, beef and chicken.
The agriculture minister, Marc Fesneau, told a big agro-industry gathering on Tuesday that “we have to admit that we must work on the entry level” end of the market.
“Animal welfare issues only work if we find someone to pay” for high-quality meat, he insisted.
The comments seem to signal a major shift in government thinking after Emmanuel Macron shook France’s powerful intensive farming lobby, soon after coming to power in 2017, by saying it was time to “stop production, whether of poultry or pork, which no longer corresponds to our tastes or needs”.
The huge industry has been under intense pressure over animal welfare and the environmental damage it causes, particularly in the western agricultural powerhouse of Brittany, where Fesneau made his speech.
Green algae from nitrates in fertilisers and waste from the region’s intensive pig, poultry and dairy farming have been linked to a number of deaths on its beaches.
But Macron’s wish to steer Europe’s biggest beef producer upmarket appears to have foundered, with 11% food inflation pushing shoppers to snub organic for cheaper meat.
Only “30% of French people now have the means to pay more for quality”, compared with half the population six years ago, said Pascale Hébel, a consumption analyst for data consultants C-Ways.
The country’s biggest intensive farming groups feel the wind is turning their way.
Despite attempts to cut meat consumption, the French remain stubbornly carnivorous, eating 113kg (nearly 250lbs) a year, almost twice the global average.
“Our goal is the reconquest of standard production,” said Gilles Huttepain, a top executive at poultry giant LDC and one of the leaders of industry group Anvol.
With one in two chickens eaten in France now coming from abroad, “we must build 400 new standard [intensive] chicken houses a year to take back the market from imports”, he added.
Under pressure from the government, supermarkets and animal welfare groups, France had almost turned its back on intensively farmed eggs, with only one in four coming from chickens reared in cages.
But poultry farmer Yves-Marie Beaudet, who heads the egg industry group CNPO, said many of his colleagues now regret the shift as sales of low-cost eggs soar.
“We cannot become like Switzerland, which went so upmarket that its agricultural sector is now just like a fairytale,” said Huttepain.
As well as being the European Union’s biggest beef supplier, France remains its second biggest milk and third biggest pork producer.
With only 1% of their production organic, French pig producers – who had been under pressure to change their intensive ways – now feel justified.
“Maybe our resistance back then wasn’t all that ridiculous. People who invested in organic now find themselves stuck,” said Anne Richard, of their lobby group Inaporc.
But dairy farmer Mathieu Courgeau said: “We are turning back the clock.”. Ditching the push for quality and continuing to “do what we have done since the 1960s, to produce cheaper and cheaper no matter what the hidden social and environmental costs … is completely counter to issues we are facing”, he said.