BOUSSY-SAINT-ANTOINE, France — Truck driver Jeremy Donf understands French farmers are struggling and he wants to support local food producers. But like many consumers, buying French produced food isn’t always an option.
Farmer protests across Europe this week have highlighted how farmers and households are both hurting these days because of multiple factors, including persistent inflation, high interest rates and volatile energy prices.
“We understand their anger because we value farmers. What are we going to do if they are not here? We won’t eat. Such protests are important,” Donf said.
But as he weighed Spanish-grown lemons in his suburban Paris supermarket, Donf noted that most of the produce around him was imported. And when French-grown food is available, not everyone can afford it. In a Paris market this week, Moroccan clementines and Polish mushrooms cost about half the price of their French counterparts.
The farmer protests drew widespread public support in France, even from truckers like Donf whose livelihood was threatened by the highway blockades that were part of the protests. Donf lives in the Paris suburb of Boussy-Saint-Antoine but comes from the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion, where farming is important and many people buy directly from local farmers.
Governments including France, Spain and Greece agreed in recent days to pump hundreds of millions of euros into the farming sector to calm the protesters. The EU also granted concessions to farmers, sensitive to voter concerns ahead of European Parliament elections in June.
At a nearby farmers’ market this week, several shoppers specifically chose more expensive French meat and vegetables over cheaper imports, in part spurred by the recent protests.
“I am well aware that it’s not easy for some people to spend more money on food, but since my pension allows me to do it, I decided to favor high-quality (French) products,” said Patrick Jobard, a retiree.
Prices for wheat, corn and other grain — except rice — are lower than they were before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drove global food commodity costs to record highs in 2022, which worsened hunger worldwide but helped farmers’ bottom lines.
Consumers, meanwhile, aren’t seeing big benefits from lower prices for wheat and other food commodities traded on global markets because the price surge that’s been seen at the grocery store is tied to other costs after food leaves the farm, said Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Things like energy costs and higher wages for labor have been “affecting every step of food processing, all the way to the retail shelves,” he said.
With prices having fallen, farmers are getting less for what they grow than they used to and are facing uncertainty from volatile energy prices.
That’s especially hard for farmers in Europe, because of the loss of inexpensive Russian natural gas and trade disruption as Yemen’s Houthi rebels attack ships in the Red Sea, he said.
The Red Sea is a critical trade route between Asia and Europe, so farmers in the European Union, Ukraine and Russia are facing the fallout from shipping companies diverting vessels on longer journeys around the tip of southern Africa.
“Those costs get passed back to producers,” said Glauber, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Not only that, interest rates are high, making it more expensive to borrow to buy farm equipment and other necessities. European farmers also face climate regulations that can drive up costs that aren’t being borne by competitors in the U.S. and elsewhere.
However, farmers in major economies like Europe and the U.S. do get government money for growing food, while “a bulk of agriculture around the world is unsubsidized. And they’re competing in this environment,” Glauber said.
Economies have slowed, especially in Europe, so food inflation has eased, but “people still think back two years ago and say, ‘Boy, this this meat is still very expensive relative to what I was paying two years ago,’” he said.
Cheaper imports are a big concern for farmers around Europe.
In France, a big focus of the farmers’ anger was the massive Rungis trading center, Europe’s biggest food market. It provides food to many Paris restaurants and supermarkets but is also seen as a symbol of globalized food chains.
A group of farmers from the rural southwest camped out with their tractors outside its gates this week, and later pushed past armored vehicles guarding the site, leading to 91 arrests.
“I chose to come here, because it’s a highly symbolic place, a food symbol,” said Jean-Baptiste Chemin, a grain and orchard farmer who drove there in his tractor from the Lot-et-Garonne region of southern France. Nearby stood a placard reading, ”We are nourishing you and we are dying.”
When police came to detain him, he joked with them in his distinctive southern accent that he wouldn’t object to being taken to a police station. “I already traveled 600 kilometers (360 miles) anyway.”
Associated Press writer Courtney Bonnell in London contributed to this report.