August 13, 2013

French farmers smash their eggs

Eggs (photo: acht&siebzig/
Eat them or break them? (photo: acht&siebzig/
In a primaeval revolt against order masked farmers in north-west France began a Dionysian orgy of egg-smashing last week.

100,000 eggs a day have already been dumped outside a Lidl discount store, government offices and village squares around Brittany. Local residents were left with the rotting mass and a hefty clean-up bill on the rates.

So the activists have railed against the laws of supply & demand and pulled off a spectacular PR stunt. Doubtless they are now also patting themselves on the back and treating themselves to a Calvados and a Gauloises blonde. But will they reap where they sow? 

The market is clearly in disequilibrium as farmers rage against low prices after record highs in the first half of 2012. They also seem to resent a European directive which took effect in January 2012 obliging them to improve the wellbeing of hens by increasing the sizes of battery cages.

This coincides with the end of strict import restrictions benefitting EU farmers and a steady decline in consumer demand for whole eggs.

Local farmers' union UGPVB claims that egg prices have fallen below the cost of production now that the EU’s laying-hen population has reached 350m. Supply currently exceeds demand by approximately 4 to 6 per cent.

Protesters therefore want minimum prices, quotas and/or government measures to restrict supply by 5 per cent. They have also demanded that retailers such as Lidl, Aldi or Carrefour destroy around 5 per cent of their daily egg deliveries.

A spectacular PR stunt

In Ploumagoar, Morlaix and Carhaix the protestors have caught the attention of the international media, but the action could backfire. For many years EU tax payers have been obliged to fund the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This has not only led to wine lakes and butter mountains in the distant past.

TV viewers are now inured to vast amounts of milk being poured onto fields, countless tons of smashed tomatoes, seats of government blocked by tractors, the air polluted by burning tyres, and objects hurled at police.

As each interest group feels the pinch, they head straight for the streets, and the media are generally supportive. Thus we are often treated to sad tales of small farmers fighting against the odds.

Yes, what is left of one's mass consumer heart goes out to these hard-working people, but little is said about big farming greed that seems content to rip up vast orchards or slaughter any number of animals if a cent more subsidy is to be obtained from the EU tax payer.

Also, it is perhaps not advantageous in PR terms that scenes of well-nourished farmers destroying vast amounts of food are often accompanied by pictures in the media of hungry people who do not belong to the world’s golden billion.

Presumably, it would not be practical for EU farmers to protest by sending their eggs to developing countries. But, if their purpose is to shame governments, they could make a start by distributing their eggs to social security recipients. At least this would not put them in the role of the destroyer.

A Hippocratic oath for farmers?

Doctors are obliged to take a Hippocratic oath, and other professions less vital to human well-being than that of farmer have their code of ethics. Surely, it is not by chance that the literal translation of the German word for food (Lebensmittel) is "means of life".

One unfortunate impression gained by these protests is that the activists have no emotional attachment to or care for what they are producing.

It is surely also not good PR strategy to take a stand on an animal welfare measure. The EU directive in favour of larger battery cages has certainly increased infrastructure costs for smaller farmers and triggered another round of concentration. But it is also a response to consumer concerns regarding how farmers treat animals.

The masked members of the informal collective who have vented their frustration against the government and the people of Brittany have not triumphed; they have done farmers a disservice.

Had they dumped their eggs and let themselves be led off by the police in front of the camera, they would have earned a lot more sympathy with the general public than their clandestine action at tax payers’ expense.

Dubious escalation

The activists, who vow to escalate their rampage and threaten further “radicalisation” and “collateral damage”, probably believe that they can limit their movement to what the Germans call “violence against things” (Gewalt gegen Sachen) and damage to public property. Throughout history, however, "violence against things" has all too often been a prelude to “violence against persons” (Gewalt gegen Menschen).

What then will be the next level of the threatened “radicalisation”? Will it, God forbid, be physical assault on EU parliamentarians, or will tractors start blocking the roads to hospitals?

No one doubts that the CAP worked wonders in feeding hungry post-war Europe. But today’s cost to EU tax payers doesn’t stand in relation to the agricultural sector’s current share of GDP. And it could be argued that even today’s revised CAP continues to contribute to imbalances in world trade to the detriment of developing countries reliant on food exports.

Clearly, however, EU politicians are afraid of the farmers’ lobby, and with just cause. The scenes in Brittany merely prove that some members feel themselves above the law. And they will continue to get their way until we battery-cage voters and tax payers make a stand.

Podcast microphone (photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)
(photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)

Podcast. Click arrow to listen to an audio version of the text:

Lebensmittel Zeitung print and digital (photo: LZ)
Our German B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German: by fresh produce editor Dirk Lenders in
Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 32, 09.08.2013

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