How French farmers are responding to climate change

With unseasonal frost damaging grapevines in four of the past five years, growers need to find new ways to adapt to climate change
How French farmers are responding to climate change

Climate change has reduced milk yield by 15% in the past 10 years, estimates Cédric Briand, right, who farms organically in partnership with Hervé Mérand, left, and Mathieu Hamond. They have 44 cows of the Bretonne Pie Noir rare breed.

It was haymaking season in Brittany in France last week.

Organic farmer Cédric Briand said hay time has come three weeks early, brought on by dry weather. On this 60-hectare dairy farm with 44 cows, which depends heavily on May grazing, Cédric will have to hope the dry weather won’t cut short the grazing days needed for profitable production and for organic specifications.

The dry spring is part of the climate change which Cédric estimates has reduced the farm’s milk production by 15% in the past 10 years. Because of this setback, Cédric and his two farming partners, Mathieu Hamond and Hervé Mérand, have purchased an extra 46 hectares to try to maintain farm income.

Many farmers here in the northwest of the country which is the EU’s agricultural powerhouse are fighting climate change.
But farming areas further south in France are even worse affected this year, by what could be a record drought, so bad already that it is also affecting many regions north of the Loire, the river that divides southern and northern France.

Meteorologists say the lack of rain is directly caused by climate change.

The agriculture ministry has doubled a fund launched in April aimed at helping farmers deal with climate change, to €40m, and the government has said water companies could spend an extra €100m to help farmers.

Over the past 15 years, the average annual temperature has risen one or two degrees in western and coastal France, and by two or three degrees inland, says Christophe Sablé, president of the dairy production working group of the Chamber of agriculture of Loire Atlantique. He said there used to be reliable rainfall in the spring and autumn, but it is unpredictable now.

These changes could spell trouble for the dairy and beef producers of Brittany, because they depend on steady weather for the grazing which they are trying to expand in order to reduce the cost of production (and for carbon storage). However, even here in the northwest, about seven months of grazing is the maximum achievable.

Milk production growth has been relatively slow in Brittany, due partly to unstable prices (now at 42c/litre) but also due to the increasing environmental and climate concerns.

Climate change is just as problematic for the growers of what is perhaps France’s most famous crop, the 800,000 hectares of grapes for a wine export trade worth €10bn per year.

With unseasonal frost damaging grapevines in four of the past five years, growers need to find new ways to adapt to climate change, for example by growing special varieties, or erecting wind turbines in vineyards. About 30% of the 2021 grape crop was destroyed.

Bastien Papion hopes that income from his 290 hectares of crops can be boosted by earning carbon credits, even as yields fall due to measures he will carry out to reduce the carbon footprint, and the loss of pesticides banned by the EU.
Bastien Papion hopes that income from his 290 hectares of crops can be boosted by earning carbon credits, even as yields fall due to measures he will carry out to reduce the carbon footprint, and the loss of pesticides banned by the EU.

Elsewhere in Brittany, 30-year-old tillage farmer Bastien Papion was looking worriedly last week at his wheat crop. May is an important month for crop development, but unless it rains, Bastien will be downgrading yield forecasts, because the winds in this coastal area can dry out the land quickly.

It’s about 1,000km away, but climate change seems much more real in France than in Ireland.

The significant climate upsets here in Ireland in recent years included the 2018 summer drought, some difficult harvests, and winter storms. But farmers soldiered through in fairly good shape.

Not so in France, after the fourth driest winter and spring since 1959, leaving crop growers with a dilemma now over whether to irrigate the winter wheat now, or save their water allowance for the maize crop.

Next door, Spain and Portugal went short of rain for six months until March, leaving about 50% of farms at risk of crop yield reduction. Drought is affecting the entire north of Italy, leaving water levels in most reservoirs at 50-year lows.

Farmers all over the EU of course face many day-to-day and month-to-month challenges, but they are getting harder to solve for some, because of the effects of climate change looming ever larger as a long-term and possibly existential threat.

Bastien in Brittany is doing his bit for climate mitigation by trying to reduce the carbon footprint of his 290 hectares of crops, while trying to cope with more and more plant protection products being banned by the EU.

Which is the bigger challenge? He answers like a politician, “The biggest change is to do both together.”

“Obviously, yields will fall,” he warns. Like many French farmers, he is getting more and more interested in reducing the farm’s carbon footprint, not only to mitigate the climate change that could burn up France’s €76.3bn of annual agricultural production (for comparison, it is only €8.2bn in Ireland), but also for income by earning carbon credits and selling them to industries which use these purchased credits to offset their carbon emissions, thus improving their image among consumers.

Bastien is at an early stage of investigating carbon credits, but experts tell him it is possible to reduce his farm’s carbon footprint from 334 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year to only 82t, by cutting emissions and storing extra carbon in his soils.

At the current carbon credit price of €30/t (which is expected to rise significantly as time goes on), reducing the carbon footprint could be worth €15 per hectare to Bastien. But that possibility is some distance off, with the farm still doing assessments and simulations.

And the weather remains the big issue, warns Bastien. “And there is not much we can do about that”. Along with reducing production and earnings, bad weather could reduce carbon credits. For example, in 2019, the weather was so bad at planting time that ploughing was necessary, rather than the minimum tillage and no-till towards which the farm is moving (because it reduces emissions). Ploughing reduced the carbon credits in 2019. But without it, there might have been no crop.

Fertilisers, both organic and synthetic, are the source of 90% of the farm’s emissions. The other 10% of emissions is from fuel for machinery and grain driers. Emissions can be reduced by using ammonium nitrate instead of urea, using organic manure instead of organic compost, growing more cover crops, planting hedges.

As usual, there would be difficult farming choices along the way. Can the farm’s policy of swopping straw in order to get slurry and manure from neighbouring livestock farmers continue? In future, farmers may want to use their own slurry, and it may improve Bastien’s carbon footprint if he incorporates the straw on his farm. At least, he can rely on the manure from the 70,000 broiler chickens per year on the farm, which his mother manages.

Energy crops (some of the farm’s rapeseed and sunflower seed are already sold to make fuel, along with some maize silage for biogas) could reduce the footprint, but the soil is robbed of carbon when all this biomass goes to a fuel plant (unless
digestate from biogas plants is spread on the fields). Meanwhile, can profitable production continue, if the EU goes ahead with its proposal to ban 50% of pesticides? Bastien estimates there is already a loss of 10% of his yields of wheat, barley, rapeseed, sunflower, maize, peas, soybeans, and beans, due to loss of pesticides such as seed dressings.

A worry further down the road for Bastien is if society wants to get rid of livestock as well as pesticides, organic fertiliser availability could reduce (which could also of course end organic cropping).

Bastien is one of five farmers in Brittany identified as committed to climate action, for a recent visit organised by the Ag-Press.eu platform for journalists.

The commitment to decarbonisation, before it is too late, is likely to be backed by more French farmers, if drought conditions this year intensify.

But there are a lot of issues for them to juggle as the new CAP approaches next January. Even that date is unpredictable, with some eastern member states asking for the new CAP to be put back to 2024, and many farmers in all member states saying the new CAP, with its decarbonisation and all the Farm to Fork and Green Deal restrictions, should be left on the back burner while the EU concentrates instead on maximising food production at a time of war in Europe.

Not all French farmers
are interested in climate action, despite the country being in the front line for the effects of global warming. The dairy industry has pledged to reduce its carbon footprint 17% between 2015 and 2025, but only about 15,000 of France’s 51,600 dairy farms are involved in a national low carbon programme launched in 2015.

The agriculture ministry welcomes carbon credits as a way to get them on board (but only about 400 of France’s 390,000 farmers have yet committed to sell credits).

Authorities are also trying to raise awareness at farm expert and advisor level. There’s no shortage of these decarbonisation experts to help farmers at the experimental dairy farm at Derval in Brittany, run by the Chamber of Agriculture of Loire Atlantique, working with the French Livestock Institute.

On this 85-cow farm producing nearly 713,000 litres of milk, the gross carbon footprint is 0.97kg of CO2 equivalent per litre of milk, reduced further to 0.91 by some carbon sequestration.

At Derval, a biogas plant on the farm is a major breakthrough. The farm uses 56,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year (44% by the robotic milking), but the biogas plant can produce that much power in 10 days. Much of the 54 tonnes of the raw material fed into the anaerobic digestion plant each day is slurry and manure from the experimental farm and from neighbouring livestock farms, along with some maize silage. Waste by-product from the local food industry is also a major source of feedstock.

Sylvain Foray of the French Livestock Institute is also proud of the farm’s nitrogen balance. Sylvain is involved in the Dairy 4 Future programme to reduce costs and carbon footprint in five Atlantic dairy regions, including Ireland. He says the 25% clover in the grass swards, and use of digestate from the biogas plant, reduce synthetic nitrogen fertiliser at Derval to only 33kg per hectare (mostly needed to grow the maize and crops that take up half of the 106 ha farm). This cuts emissions such as nitrous oxide and ammonia, and reduces water and air pollution. At only 89kg per ha, the nitrogen surplus (inputs minus output) compares with 200kg in Ireland and 180 in the Netherlands, says Sylvain.

However, the average dairy farm in Ireland matches the Derval experimental farm for carbon footprint, according to Teagasc figures for 2021 of 0.99 kg, and 0.86 kg, when carbon sequestration is included (one of the lowest in the world, according to Teagasc).

And the dairy industry in Ireland is busy with schemes to drive the carbon footprint even lower (and to protect water quality from surplus nitrogen).

Much of the focus in Ireland over the next decade is on cutting chemical nitrogen use, by better use of organic manures and clover and multispecies swards, while replacing calcium ammonium nitrate with protected urea.

Further measures to stabilise emissions from the dairy sector will come from the Food Vision 2030 dairy group, and the CAP strategic plan for 2023 to 2027.

Meanwhile, Irish dairy farmers have a strong incentive to reduce their carbon footprint, with co-ops paying valuable milk sustainability bonuses for farmer actions that increase efficiency..

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