At just eight years of age, a French child with farming parents decided that she too would be a farmer. By 19, having studied agriculture for five years, this was a reality for Christiane Lambert.
It is, however, her rise through the French farm organisations to lead COPA that has sealed her legacy. COPA is the European Farmers’ Union based in Brussels and represents over 22 million farmers and their family members through its membership of national farm organisations. The IFA is a member and has an office in the COPA building close to the heart of the Brussels’ political machine, the Berlaymont – headquarters of the EU Commission.
Christiane, alongside her political roles, has continued to farm in the west of France with her husband Thierry on 106 ha of crops with 230 sows.
Progression in farm politics has been continuous for Christiane since her first election to the French young farmer’s organisation in 1981. She tells Irish Country Living: “I’ve always been invested in associations, first at the local level with young farmers, progressing to a national role before being elected president in 1994.”
Her view is that the 1992 MacSharry CAP reform was a terrible event for young farmers, which made it very difficult for them to access land. So during her four-year term Christiane worked to improve the situation for young farmers, with success secured through a national charter to support young farmers setting up.
“We convinced the elder farmer to make a place for young farmers. We worked with the agricultural chamber, the bank, the administration [Government], the cooperative, all the organisations around the young farmers to make it easier for them to get started on farm.”
In 1992, the nitrates directive was also introduced, which made it necessary for Christiane to explain the new rules for working to farmers, while also promoting the importance of having young dynamic farmers in rural areas.
First exposed to Brussels while president of the young farmers, Christiane came a number of times with CEJA, the young farmers’ organisation (of which Macra is a member). But, she admits honestly that as a young mother she didn’t want to be in Brussels too much. It was for this reason that she did not take up any post in Brussels at that time.
“Then at 35, I stopped because I was no longer considered a young farmer. But it was time to have a third child. We needed a girl because we had two boys,” she laughs.
Progressing to the big league
But before too long, Christiane joined the French farm union, Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d’exploitants Agricoles (FNSEA) at a local level. She believes that starting out at the lower level is important as, “the process is an election and you can lose your position [so] it is necessary to have strong roots in your territory”.
This progression is also important, she believes, to be competent on the myriad of topics impacting farmers. With so many issues, Christiane says she needs to know something about everything while not specialising on any one topic.
“I always want to have a scope of competencies. I work, I read, I listen and I attend a lot of conferences. I always try to have one or two training sessions each year on different topics – economic, environmental, fiscal and also communication - to be more competent.”
Despite her competence, in terms of lobbying, Christine acknowledges that understanding a topic is one thing while explaining it is another.
“When you have the right people in front of you, it is very important to know how to present the information and build a speech [argument]. I’ve been lucky. At the beginning of my career, I had very clever elected farmers around me. They were inspiring people, very charismatic and made very good speeches. They were my role models.”
Elected to the board of FNSEA at the national level in 2002, she took on various areas of responsibility; from education to the environment, food, biodiversity, animal welfare and food security. Surprisingly, she reflects, these were actually new topics, with the French union only starting to realise the importance of having the voice of the farmer speaking out in these areas.
Elected president of FNSEA in 2017 (completing her second three-year term in 2023), Christiane has, since September 2020, also been president of COPA.
The role of the COPA president is to have an overview of all issues. Because, she explains, the organisation now works with not just the Agriculture Committee, as it did in the past, but also with environment, food, trade and health, so it necessary to have “360-degree vision”.
A frustration for farmers that Christiane outlines is the time it takes for decisions to be made and action taken.
“In Brussels there are many institutions. Farmers often don’t understand that everything takes a long time. You need one, two, three, four years to take a decision,” she says.
She gives a recent example; “We have worked hard to explain [to the legislators] that large carnivores are a problem. In early December, the Parliament agreed it is necessary to take action because there are too many wolves and bears. And then, the commission said: ‘No, we don’t change anything.’”
COPA has been asking for the international convention on large carnivores to be changed so the animals were “protected” as opposed to “strictly protected”. This request came as the population is growing and in France alone up to 12,000 sheep are killed each year.
Christiane argues that less young farmers will be interested unless action is taken because it is very difficult to see your animals killed but also, if they leave, without farmers cultivating the land, it will be bad for fire and snow risk and for tourists.
Respecting the issues impacting 27 member states, who all have very different agricultural policies and very different farming systems is key to the role. There are also very different ministers and the relationships between the [representative] associations and the politicians varies.
COPA can assist in this regard she explains: “The stronger unions help the less strong unions to improve their situation so it’s a really good melting pot for the [farm] leaders who come to Brussels. It’s difficult also, because there are many voices with very different viewpoints. We don’t all think the same on pesticides, on rural areas or CAP. It’s necessary to have consensus and it must be a strong one. So we speak and speak until we agree on a position.”
Internal politics needs to be managed also, she says: “Some farmers come on to a board with a single priority issue but COPA must say: ‘Yes this topic is very important but you must integrate it into the complex world of topics. Consumers, too, sometimes only see one topic. They say: ‘I want cheaper food. If there are no more farmers, I don’t care. I want cheaper food. And we say it’s imported, they say: ‘I’ve no money, I want cheaper food’. We must explain that cheaper food means less farmers and lower-quality food because if it comes from exotic country, it’s not the same rules.”
With consensus important internally, it is not surprising to hear Christiane call for consensus externally also between the farmer and society and with politicians.
She rebukes the notion that (animal) breeding is bad for the environment.
“Breeding is essential for biodiversity, to keep meadows and mountains open. It’s our work to explain that if you go too far in this direction, we will lose something else. We must have an equilibrium and a real balance.”
On current EU policies, she believes that the Farm to Fork is “too far” but the CAP has been “very, very debated and a balance found”. Balance, she claims, was only found during COVID-19 when people recognised the value of food. This realisation resulted in a proposed cut to the CAP budget of 15% being reduced to 2%.
The Green Deal and Farm to Fork were decided before COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine she asserts.
“Everybody thought it was easy to get food from everywhere in the world and we only needed to be good with environment – a terrible error. When people are hungry, they travel, they take a boat, and they come to Europe. There is a new consideration for food and food security, since those two events occurred.”
The farm organisation, she says, doesn’t contest the direction to be more sustainable but they believe the targets are too high and are set without proper impact assessments. Pesticides are the latest area to be targeted. Her solution is to listen to the science and make science-based decisions, not political decisions.
An issue of course is that the timing for science is very different from a politician’s timing.
“They need to be re-elected every few years but science can take much longer. Recently the [French] National Research Institute published research on using 70% less pesticides in the vineyards but that research had taken 17 years. And yet politicians say: ‘No, no, no tomorrow,’” she declares, banging the table in frustration.
These political decisions impact on food production volumes, a situation which the farm leader finds incredulous. “How can we say we’ll produce less with more people in the world and with trade in Ukraine and Russia now very difficult? China, too, has many problems and the United States says ‘America first’. Vladimir Putin has two terrible weapons; food weapon and energy weapon. Europe cannot abandon food production.”
A very green deal
Energy is a huge consideration for farmers, she continues. “We have nuclear power. Agriculture doesn’t want to be treated like nuclear. Twenty years ago, Greenpeace and many NGOs said nuclear is bad, very bad. They made an impression on the politicians and sent out a message of fear. Politicians decided to stop nuclear and now it’s, ‘We need nuclear’. I don’t want the same thing for agriculture. We have much more of a positive impact than a negative impact, but it is the negative impact that is always spoken about.”
The first politician that Christiane and COPA had to fight on this was Frans Timmermans (who is leading the Commission’s work on the Green Deal and Climate Law) who she says wanted a “very, very Green Deal”.
“It was Timmermans, Timmermans, Timermans, greener, greener, greener and our [Agriculture] commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski was invisible but now it is ‘food, food, food’. It’s a very good signal. Wojciechowski one, Timmermans zero.”
“The commission says the wind is blowing in a good direction for agriculture but it must blow stronger. Agriculture is the Swiss knife that can resolve many problems for society; from food, energy, and biodiversity, to carbon capture and carbon keeping in soil. Now, the problem is that farmers are becoming very pessimistic because of the criticism and we must find a way back from that. We are essential and that’s why I’m optimistic for the farmers.”