‘Cut your cow numbers to help meet climate commitments’, France told

A court said France’s 17 million cows are ‘not favourable for the climate’ and that methane emissions must drop

There are currently 17 million cows in France, but this number must be reduced significantly, a court has said
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France must reduce its number of cows to meet its climate change commitments, the Cour des comptes has said in a new report.

The country’s 17 million cows make up 11.8% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, the court said. France is the largest producer of beef in Europe and the bloc’s second-largest dairy producer (second only to Germany).

In 2020, there were 91,123 farms or producers specialising in cow-origin products, including dairy and meat, occupying 32.7% of the farming area in the country, the court said, pointing out that with €4.3bn of aid each year, the industry is the most-subsidised farming sector in France.

But in its ruling, the court wrote: “The state of cattle farming is not favourable for the climate. Despite other efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, such as stocking carbon in the soil, overall, greenhouse gas emissions remain very high.”

Cattle mainly cause greenhouse gas emissions due to methane in the animals’ waste. This represents 45% of emissions from cattle in France, “comparable to that of residential construction” in the country, it said.

The Cour des comptes’ report, published on Monday (May 22), came as Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, separately, unveiled a new government plan of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across major economic sectors, especially in the farming industry.

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‘Significant reduction in the herd’

The court asked the Ministry of Agriculture to “define and make public” its strategy “to reduce methane emissions…[which] necessarily requires a significant reduction in the herd”.

The court admitted that the ministry had already communicated its aims to reduce the number of cows in France from 17 million today to 15 million in 2035 and 13.5 million in 2050.

The number of cattle has already dropped by 10% in the past six years, the court noted, but said that this has “not been done due to any real scheme from the state, and is also happening to the detriment of farmers”.

Weekly beef consumption limit

The court said that reducing the number of cows would not negatively impact France’s “sovereignty” when it comes to meat production, as long as the public sticks to the health recommendations to not eat more than 500g per week. Currently, however, around 28% of adults exceed this limit.

The court also recommended that the Agriculture Ministry should compensate “farmers in difficulty” so they can “turn towards other systems of production or change professional direction” in the event that they are no longer able to profit from cattle farming.

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Ecological plans for economic sectors

The calls for fewer cows come as the government announced plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and causes of climate change across key economic sectors.

The plan details objectives on the horizon for 2030. It will seek to ensure France conforms to European targets, and reduce its emissions by 50% compared to 1990. It aims to achieve the equivalent of 270 million tonnes of CO2 per year, versus 408 million in 2022.

In comparison, France has only reduced its emissions by 25% so far.

The proposed ideas still need to be discussed by industry heads and in Parliament. Many of them hinge on the use of electric vehicles, and the electrification of logistics, transportation, and infrastructure. It also includes moves towards reducing carbon fuel boilers.

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