INTERVIEW. Agriculture on the islands: “Today, we import 90% of the food”

The islands on the Atlantic coast are well aware of the agricultural crisis. Until a century ago, small farms were part of the landscape. They have now almost all disappeared. Explanations with Georges Birault, president of the Atlantic Islands Agricultural Network.

The islands on the Atlantic coast face a shortage of farmers, why?

After World War II, there was an agricultural abandonment. In the past, it was common to have a few animals and a piece of land that you cultivated to feed your family. The practice was put aside and at the same time, farmers abandoned the islands. It was more financially interesting to do another job. Some chose to go and work in the sardine or tuna factories which were undergoing good development, others became fishermen. Then there was the boom in tourism, it was less arduous work with the guarantee of having a salary at the end of the month. And then, transport and supermarkets developed. Why bother to produce on the island, when in a few hours, I can hop on the mainland and bring everything back by boat?

photo the islands of the French Atlantic coast are suffering from a farming problem.  © marc ollivier / west-france

The islands of the French Atlantic coast are suffering from a farming problem. © Marc Ollivier / Ouest-France

What are the constraints of island agriculture?

First of all, settling down is complicated. There are no longer any old farms or farm buildings. They are starting from scratch. It is necessary to find the unexploited land, to restore the wasteland and above all, to convince the owners. In addition, there is the coastal law in particular, which complicates the installation. Communities play an important role here. The town halls will provide buildings, find arrangements with owners and ensure that at the end of the operation, everything is not transformed for tourism.

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Second, living and working on an island, especially if there is no bridge, is to be even more far-sighted and resourceful than a mainland farmer. We must have reserves, emergency equipment in case of a problem. The issue of water management is also problematic. Finally, there is logistics: you have to be able to transform and sell your products on site.

photo in ouessant (finistère), a couple of farmers landed with their twelve dairy cows a few months ago.  © marc ollivier, west-france

In Ouessant (Finistère), a couple of farmers landed with their twelve dairy cows a few months ago. © Marc Ollivier, West-France

Is the situation worrying?

Yes, because 90% of food is imported today, compared to 10% 100 years ago and it is not because the population is increasing. However, having farmers on an island means creating jobs there. It is also important for maintaining public services and maintaining the landscape. For the past fifteen years, we have finally seen a few young farmers settling on the stones and this is encouraging. It is linked to a return to small installations, compatible with agricultural practice on an island.