Agriculture is fundamental to the French way of life at home as well as to its identity abroad. As of 2020 in France, usable agricultural areas represent 269 000 km² or 49% of the country. These are the most recent figures made available by the 2020 Agricultural census, a global data collection process guided by the FAO every 10 years. According to the FAO, France is the leading European agricultural producer and accounts for 18 % of European agricultural production, ahead of Italy and Spain. France produces a number of agricultural products including grains such as wheat, barley and corn, root vegetables such as potatoes and sugar beets, and livestock such as beef, pork, raw milk and cheese. 45 % of France’s agricultural area is dedicated to major field crops while also accommodating the EU’s biggest cattle herd with 19 million head of cattle including 3.6 million dairy cows. Perhaps most famously, France is known for its grape production and is the world’s largest producer of wine. Arable farming centers mainly around the Paris Basin in the northern and western parts of France, with permanent grassland concentrated in mountainous areas such as the Massif Central, the Alps, and the Vosges as well as the Western region of Normandy. Permanent areas of cultivation are concentrated around the Mediterranean regions as well. In 2022, agricultural production achieved a value, excluding subsidies, of 95.8 billion euros: 58.7 billion euros in crop production and 31.4 billion euros in animal production. Agricultural production is one of France’s historic strengths in international trade, and exports are the driving engine for a sector which accounts for more than 1 million jobs and 3.5% of French GDP. France is the sixth-largest agrifood exporter worldwide, after the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil and China.
Such a large industry also creates large emissions. According to an analysis published by the French Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry General Secretariat, agricultural emissions as a proportion of total emissions are higher in France (around 20%) than in Europe as a whole (9-10%). This is because agriculture represents a higher proportion of the French economy than in other European countries. In addition, France derives a significant proportion of its energy mix from nuclear energy, which produces fewer emissions relative to other energy sources. Between 1990 and 2012, European emissions of GHGs of agricultural origin (excluding energy combustion) decreased by 24% while those same emissions in France fell by only 9.6%. This reduction is largely attributed to a decline in the use of nitrogen fertilizers, the reduction of utilized agricultural land and cattle numbers (primarily as a result of more intensive dairy farming), and a drop in energy consumption since 2004.
According to data from Climate Trace, greenhouse gasses emitted by the French agriculture sector, defined as greenhouse gas emissions from the growing of crops and livestock for food and raw materials for non-food consumption, have been decreasing on an annual basis over the last six years. This decrease occurred steadily from 2015 until 2018: 2015 (0.20 M TONNES CO2) 2016 (0.18 M TONNES CO2) 2017 (0.15 M TONNES CO2) and 2018 (0.09 M TONNES CO2). A spike in 2019 (0.24 M TONNES CO2) was followed by a fall to 2018 levels in 2020 (0.09 M TONNES CO2) followed by an even lower figure in 2021 (0.06 M TONNES CO2). The total CO2 emissions from the agricultural sector over this period 2015 – 2021 was 1.02 M TONNES CO2, a figure derived mainly from the measurement of CO2 emissions from cropland fires. Climate Trace defines cropland fire emissions as “greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of agricultural residue burned on site. Emissions are gross (not net) as they do not include the carbon sink associated with vegetation regrowth” and measures those emissions on a yearly basis by “using an empirical relationship with inputs from satellite-derived datasets and vegetation-specific combustion and emissions factors. Crop residue fires are identified within a country, emissions estimated, and aggregated to the country-level for total greenhouse gas emissions.” A recent study published in 2022, analyzed the evolution of agricultural fires in France between 2000 and 2021. Their findings corroborated the high CO2 emissions reported by Climate Trace in 2019 by demonstrating a higher-than-average number of cropland fires in 2019 as shown in the graph below.
The findings demonstrate that “there is a strong seasonality and the appearance in particularly extreme years. Specifically, the years 2015 and 2019 for crop fires and the years 2012 and 2019 for rangeland fires show a very high number of fires. These years are characterized by particularly high temperatures related to heat waves early in the season. These climatic conditions lead to early droughts, reducing the moisture content of vegetation and increasing its flammability.” Agricultural land plays a vital role in proper landscape management by acting as natural fire breaks to prevent the spread of wildfires and reduce the area burned. Agricultural fires however are understudied. This study marked the first attempt to inventory agricultural fires in France and highlight special and temporal patterns specific to cropland and rangeland fires as categories of fires which are generally not included in current fire inventories and whose consequences such as their contribution to CO2 emissions are often severely underestimated. Increased surveillance and inventory of agricultural fires, both prescribed fires and wildfires, is needed therefore to take a more full accounting of their contributions towards climate change and formulate actions that can be taken to reduce emissions in this sub-sector of the agriculture sector.
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard France Country Manager Liana Mehring
Learn More References
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Image Source: Nathan Laine · Bloomberg · Getty https://mondediplo.com/2022/03/10agriculture