Widespread protests by farmers in France could disrupt Britain’s food supply, a top trade official has warned, as agriculture workers across Europe join their French counterparts in rallies against rising costs and cheap imports.
Marco Forgione, the Director General of Britain’s Institute of Export & International Trade, said: ‘The farmers’ action is potentially extremely disruptive for Britain given how much we rely on the EU for fresh produce at this time of year, but also given the current fragility of global supply chains.’
‘To put the potential disruption into perspective, about a third of all the food we eat in the UK comes from the European Union. Britain imports nearly half of its fresh vegetables and the majority of its fruit, both mainly from the EU.
‘These strikes could halt the supply of much-needed produce if not resolved soon,’ he concluded.
Forgione’s comments come as the agricultural activists choked off major motorways in an intensifying standoff with the French government over working conditions, incomes, red tape and environmental policies.
Now, the tractors are edging closer to Paris and the Rungis international food market – a hub for produce for France and beyond. The government has described the blockading of Rungis as a ‘red line’ and would intervene to remove the blockades by force if needed.
Meanwhile, farmers from further afield have also joined the fray, with Belgian workers setting up dozens of blockades on highways and on access roads to a major container port this morning.
Spanish farmers said they would also join the movement, and some 1,000 Italian farmers were planning to take part in rallies in Brussels on Thursday to press EU leaders meeting in the capital to act.
Tractors face military vehicles on a blocked highway, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024 in Chilly-Mazarin, south of Paris
Many farmers form a convoy with their tractors and block the roads on the A6 Road in the southern suburbs of Paris, France
Belgian farmers burn wooden pallets and tyres as they block the highway in Aalter, Belgium, 31 January 2024
People attend a farmers’ protest on January 30, 2024 in Avellino, Italy
A convoy of tractors drive down the A1 motorway as they try and reach Charles de Gaulle Airport, as part of a co-ordinated farmer’s convoy to blockade the French capital, on January 30, 2024 on the outskirts of Paris, France
Protesting farmers block streets in central Hamburg, on January 29, 2024. The farmers’ and truck drivers’ anger stems from a government decision to cut subsidies and tax breaks on diesel and agricultural vehicles
A placard reading ‘This policy is lost food’ is placed on a tractor as Belgian farmers block the highway in Aalter, Belgium, 31 January 2024
The demonstrators used their tractors to block roads across France, smearing manure on government offices and threatening to mire Paris in gridlock as they demanded fair competition.
‘We want to blockade the logistics platforms to demand a better sharing of added value, as supermarkets made big profits in the last half of the year and we never saw any of it,’ an unnamed spokesman told BFM TV after activists set alight to rubbish at a Lidl and blockaded the entry to an Aldi distribution hub earlier this week.
Authorities said there were still 120 roadblocks in place across France on Tuesday evening, with more than 12,000 farmers and 6,000 tractors involved.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused painful economic shocks, including higher costs for fertilisers and fuel for machinery, bringing farmers’ anger to a head in France and other European countries.
Climate change and pressure for more sustainable and productive agriculture are also squeezing the 500,000 or so French agriculteurs, who already have to compete against counterparts from further afield.
To cite just two examples, chicken imports have surged and imports of cherry tomatoes from Morocco have exploded from 300 tons to 70,000 tons per year since 1995, according to a Senate study in 2022 about the dwindling competitive strength of French farms.
‘Everything we warned of 30 years ago is coming true,’ said Damien Brunelle, a farmer of cereals and other crops in the Aisne region northeast of Paris. ‘Our countryside is emptying.’
‘Everything we buy has gone up,’ Bruelle said. ‘But we’re not getting the same revenue.’
When the Ukraine war pushed up prices, Brunelle got 400 euros (£341) per ton for the wheat he grows, he says. A ton now brings him just 190 euros (£162).
Another common grievance from protesters is that they’re being suffocated by red tape and tied down by French and EU rules that govern farming, land use and the distribution of billions of euros in agricultural subsidies.
Farmers complain that they’re losing to rivals from countries with fewer constraints and lower costs.
‘We’re worried because they don’t have the same regulations as us,’ said Stéphanie Flament, a farmer of cereals and beets east of Paris. ‘It will be cheaper for the consumer, so where will consumers or companies turn to process flour and so on? To products that cost less.’
The farmers’ protests have garnered some support in the UK, most notably from former Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson.
The 63-year-old sent French farmers a message of support a day after the protesters said that they were inspired by his farming show Clarkson’s Farm, wishing ‘good luck’ to those advocating for better remuneration for their produce and an end to restrictive regulations and cheap imports.
In a message written in French, Top Gear star Clarkson now said on X, formerly known as Twitter: ‘French farmers. I bet no one has ever said that before, but good luck, coming from England.’
That came after a French farm owner told the Telegraph that the country needed a celebrity ‘to do the same as Clarkson’.
The former motoring journalist has gained plaudits for his Amazon Prime Video series shedding light on the issues farmers face as he attempts to run his own farm in Oxfordshire.
A farmer waves to another farmer from behind a window of a tractor with condensation as they block a highway in Ourdy, south of Paris, Wednesday, January 31
The Clarkson’s Farm host (pictured), 63, wished ‘good luck’ to those calling for the French government to respond to demands for better remuneration for their produce, less red tape and protection against cheap imports
Farmers occupy a highway with their tractors, in Ourdy, south of Paris, Wednesday, January 31
In a message written in French, Top Gear star Clarkson now said on X, formerly known as Twitter: ‘French farmers. I bet no one has ever said that before, but good luck, coming from England’
Farmers warm themselves around a bonfire as they block a highway with their tractors in Ourdy, south of Paris, Wednesday, January 31
Clarkson’s show was praised for explaining the issues farmers in France and England face ‘regarding all these environmental rules’.
The outspoken presenter used his platform in the UK to campaign in support of the difficulty farmers are facing, including rising interest rates, high energy prices and pressure from customers to keep prices low.
He even renamed his farm ‘Diddly Squat’ – reportedly to reflect how much money it makes.
Clarkson told The News Agents podcast in 2022 that he believes food prices should be double what they are.
‘People simply don’t pay enough for their food. The one thing a government will never say ”oh you’ve got to pay more for your food, you don’t pay enough”,’ he told presenters Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel.
French farmers have argued that although the UK is no longer part of the EU, the key issues – food inflation, cheaper imports and environmental legislation – remain the same.
In a general policy speech at the National Assembly, France’s newly appointed prime minister Gabriel Attal said he is implementing controls on foreign food products in order to guarantee fair competition.
He also said food retailers who do not comply with a law meant to ensure a fair share of revenues for farmers will be fined, with immediate effect.
Farmers share a breakfast in the center of Brussels, Belgium, Wednesday, January 31, 2024 ahead of a blockade
Farmers in their tractors occupy a highway in Ourdy, south of Paris, Wednesday, January 31
Farmers warm themselves around a bonfire as they block a highway in Ourdy, south of Paris, Wednesday, January 31
Farmers gather in the center of Brussels, Belgium, Wednesday, January 31, as the blockage enters the third day
Farmers forming a blockage in Chilly-Mazarin, a commune in the southern suburbs of Paris, France, on January 30
Protesters set up a tent as they were camping out on a road leading into Paris
On Tuesday, farmers said they intended to surround Rungis, to the south of the capital.
This would have caused chaos to the city’s food supply, which can last for three days before crisis shortages are announced.
Some of the more extreme farmers said they want to cause as much suffering as possible, with grain farmer Benoit Durand – part of the trade union-led protest movement – declaring: ‘The goal is to starve Parisians. That’s it.’
Police halted the convoy outside of Rungis, though demonstrators were allowed to spend the night under motorway bridges, where they set fire to bales of hay and any foreign produce they could get their hands on.
‘Rungis is a red line, along with the city airports,’ said a police spokesman.
‘A convoy heading up from the south west was stopped twice this morning, and it will not be reaching Rungis.’
Thousands of farmers across Europe are complaining about a lack of support for their industry.
This has led to increased extremism, as the agricultural workers complain about increased suicide rates and farms going out of business.
President Emmanuel Macron has offered a series of concessions to the French farmers.
These include abandoning a planned increase in diesel fuel duties, offering the equivalent of some £50million to organic farms, and imposing fines on supermarkets which do not pay enough for French produce.
But the farmers want far more, and Macron is due to meet European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to try and work out a deal.