Like often these days, Nicolas Calame, a French unionist, first read the news online.
Keqin Hu, a Chinese billionaire, had managed to accumulate hundreds of hectares of arable land in Indre, central France; tenacious reporters brought the deals to light. Calame, spokesman for the regional branch of the farmers’ union, would have preferred to find out another way.
Hu had cannily used an exemption to a French law that gives a state agency pre-emption rights to buy farmland; the local farming community was not put in the loop. “We were a bit surprised,” he tells Agri Investor. “It was not the first time someone did it. But from Chinese investors, that was unusual.”
Not everybody is alarmed by the prospects of Chinese money landing in the French countryside. Large land owners, Calame says, see the resulting boost to land prices as rather good news.
Farmers’ unions are less sanguine. Higher prices will make it difficult for the young to make a start in agriculture, Calame argues. Beyond this, he reckons such deals amount to the “privatisation of farmland”. “We’re fighting for the countryside to retain its life and plenty of peasants. It’s the death of rural areas if there are only two or three farms left per village.”
Calame doesn’t solely blame outside investors for growing levels of farmland concentration in the region: he points out that the reason Hu was able to ramp up his portfolio so quickly was because vast tracts of consolidated land already existed.
The EU’s current subsidy regime is partly to blame, he reckons. Financial support is capped for livestock producers, but owners of farmland face no such ceiling. Year after year, that has led large-scale cereal growers to gain further ground.
Take back control
Still, he thinks foreign investment should be more tightly restricted. In its current state, the law requires a government green light only when 100 percent of the shares in a farmland holding changes hands. Calame wants that threshold to go down.
He is not so optimistic it will happen. Calame says the government is leaning towards a simplification of procedures; so far, it has appeared more inclined to maintain a significant degree of laissez-faire.
Chinese investors, meanwhile, remain in farmers’ crosshairs. “What we’re fearing, with the arrival of Chinese buyers, is the advent of an agriculture without farmers,” Calame says.
“I’m not sure that European citizens, who fund the Common Agricultural Policy through the taxes they contribute, originally had in mind that subsidies would be used to fatten up Chinese companies. And the same question will arise for English land owners post-Brexit.”
Learn more about Keqin Hu, the Chinese investor who’s causing a storm, in the previous instalment of the series