By Melissa Alexander

A major player in world grain production, France has the largest agricultural area in the European Union. About 55% of French land is used for agricultural purposes, accounting for about 23% of total E.U. agricultural area.

Grains traditionally have been grown intensively on half of France’s arable land, with wheat, durum, barley and maize the key crops. The area planted to oilseeds and protein crops has increased greatly in the past 20 years, from about 500,000 hectares in the early 1980s to nearly 2 million ha today.

France’s agricultural sector employs, upstream and downstream, more than 2 million people. But the population actually farming has been in constant decline, and consolidation of agricultural holdings has been occurring at a rate of 3% to more than 5% per year.

The rate has depended on the number of farmers retiring, with that number itself influenced by European and national farm closure schemes. In 1997, France counted about 680,000 agricultural holdings — compared with 1.6 million in 1970 — with 424,000 of the 1997 total farmed full time.

The average farm size is about 42 hectares, which is more than twice the average for the 15 E.U. member states.

The total value of French agricultural production is now running at about €63 billion a year or 23% of total E.U. production.

As an E.U. member, France conforms to the E.U.’s Common Agricultural Policy, which determines area set-asides, price supports, intervention activities and export controls. But French agricultural interests play a key role in determining internal policies and influencing decisions relating to the CAP.

French domestic policy is managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, which works closely with a variety of politically powerful agricultural unions, chambers of agriculture, commodity boards and other groups. The French National Office for Cereals (ONIC) is the grain board and serves as the intervention authority under the CAP.

Most of the French groups actively lobby both domestically and at the E.U. level. For example, pressure from France contributed to the E.U.’s decision earlier this year to place quotas on cheap wheat imports from the Black Sea region.


France, the E.U.’s largest wheat producer, grows primarily soft wheat. Of the 34-million-tonne supply in 2000-01, 52% was exported, 16% was milled domestically, and 21% was consumed as animal feed.

In 1999, ONIC established a classification table for French wheat based on protein content, specific weights and Hagberg index numbers. This classification was first used for the 1999-00 wheat crop and was expanded into subcategories for 2001-02 crop to better match feed compounders’ needs.

In 2002, ONIC began to subsidize the purchase by local grain cooperatives of grain analyzers to sort wheat by its protein content to enable payment of premiums for higher protein wheat. The ultimate goal is to raise average quality, especially in terms of protein content and specific weight.

The French food processing sector was worth €131.2 billion in 2001 (U.S.$117.6 billion), making France number one in Europe and number two in the world after the United States, which had total sales of €510 billion (U.S.$457 billion).

The overall food industry is the most important sector of the French economy, well ahead of the automobile industry (€86 billion) and the electronic and electrical industry (€61.5 billion). The wheat milling sub-sector accounts for about 3.8% of the total food processing sector in terms of total sales, while bread, bakery and pastry products are included in the miscellaneous food category that accounts for another 21% of total sales.

In 2003, the number of French flour mills totaled 574, down from 582 in 2001, the most recent year for which complete data are available, according to the Association Nationale de la Meunerie Francaise. In 2001, French mills ground 5.8 million tonnes of wheat and produced about 4.6 million tonnes of flour and products.

Of the total number of mills in 2001, 43.5% were small, annually grinding 1,000 tonnes or fewer, and 28.2% ground 1,000 to 5,000 tonnes. Only 5.2% ground more than 50,000 tonnes. But the large mills accounted for 49.3% of total 2001 wheat usage, while mills grinding fewer than 5,000 tonnes accounted for only 9.7%.

The Association Nationale de la Meunerie Francaise is the primary industry organization, representing 435 mills, or 75% of the country’s total. Association members accounted for 85% of total 2001 French flour production.

Of total 2001 domestic flour use, 69.7% was for bread making. Of the bread flour total, 69.5% went to artisan bakeries, while only 22.3% went to industrial bakeries.

As seen in the mill decline in the past two years, the industry is undergoing restructuring. Although the domestic system of small artisan bakeries is still large, it is shrinking as more people buy bread in supermarkets. Several small or medium-sized millers have either closed or have been bought by larger milling groups such as Soufflet or Grand Moulins de Paris.

Another area of concern for the industry is the slump in flour exports in recent years, as many traditional importers such as Egypt and Yemen began to build their own mills and import grain instead of flour. After peaking in 1993 at about 1.9 million tonnes, French flour exports have fallen in each subsequent year, hitting 727,000 tonnes in 2001.

The largest single market for French export flour is within the E.U., taking about 20.5% in 2001. Outside the region, primary markets in 2001 included Cuba at 12.22% of flour exports, followed by Sudan at 10.97% and Mauritania at 7.3%.

To reduce overall capacity, ONIC and the milling industry in 2001 launched a program that has cut French milling capacity for export by 1.265 million tonnes. Some companies such as Champagne Cereales withdrew from the flour export business, while other mills were closed down and the milling equipment sold outside the E.U. On the domestic market, the elimination of 185,000 tonnes of milling capacity also is planned.


The animal feed processing sub-sector accounts for 7.5% of France’s total food processing sector in terms of sales.

According to France’s compound feed industry organization, Syndicat National des Industriels de la nutrition Animale, France is home to 350 compound feed enterprises located throughout the country.

Compound feed production in calendar 2002 totaled 20.942 million tonnes, according to SNIA data. Of the total, cereals accounted for 10.711 million tonnes of feed components, with soybean meal accounting for 3.96 million. Wheat is the main grain used, accounting for 28% of all ingredients, followed by maize at 16%.

Some 42% of feed produced is for poultry, with pig feed accounting for 30% and cattle feed for 19%, according to SNIA.

SNIA is a founding member of the European Feed Manufacturers Association (FEFAC), and has worked on developing controls, safeguards and good manufacturing practices within the feed industry.

Following the CAP reform of 1992 that led to a decrease in EU grain prices, feed uses of grains have increased sharply in France.

Industrial uses of grain, especially wheat, have increased sharply since the early 1990s. France is the largest wheat starch exporter in the world, with more than 31% of the total wheat starch world trade.

Data (1,000 tonnes)




















Wheat flour





2001-02 marketing year estimates, except wheat flour, 2001

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Association Nationale de la Meunerie Francaise




Key Facts



Demography: Population 59.8 million, 0.35% growth rate (2002 estimates); French language; Roman Catholic religion (83% to 88%).

Geography: Western Europe, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea; continental, Mediterranean climates, with plains, rolling hills, mountains in south and east.

Government: Republic. Chief of state is President Jacque Chirac; head of government is Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Official agricultural agencies: Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Rural Affairs under Minister Herve Gaymard.

Economy: France is in gradual transition from a wealthy modern economy featuring extensive government owner-ship and intervention to one that relies more on market mechanisms. The government has partially or fully privatized many large companies, banks and insurers, but still retains large stakes in several major companies. Leaders remain committed to a capitalism in which they maintain social equity by means of laws, tax policies and social spending. Problems include a rigid labor market, restrictive bureaucracy and a high tax burden. Agriculture accounts for 4% of the labor force and 3% of gross domestic product.

G.D.P. per capita: U.S.$25,700 (purchasing power parity), 1.1% growth rate, 1.8% inflation, 9.1% unemployment, (2002 estimates).

Currency: Euro. June 10, 2003 exchange rate, €0.856122 = 1 U.S. dollar.

Exports: U.S.$307.8 billion (f.o.b., 2002), machinery, beverages, pharmaceutical products.

Imports: U.S.$303.7 billion (f.o.b., 2002), vehicles, crude oil, chemicals.

Major crops/agricultural products: Wheat, barley, maize.

Wheat: Production typically is about 37.5 million tonnes a year, with exports averaging 16.79 million. Total domestic use averages 20.5 million tonnes annually, with 11.5 million of that in feed use.

Barley: Production averages 9.9 million tonnes, with exports at about 4.5 million and total use at 5.2 million.

Maize: Production averages 16.3 million tonnes annually, with exports at about 7.8 million and total use at 8.5 million.

Transportation: Highways, 189,000 km, 108,100 paved; railroads, 31,939 km, mostly 1.435-m gauge; Bordeaux, Dunkerque, Le Havre, Rouen are major ports.

Internet: Country code, *.fr; 62 service providers (2000); 16.97 million users (2002).