Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Demonstrating against seaweed.

Any tendencies I once had towards political activism have been dormant for quite a while; quietism is more my line now, and I have felt generally unqualified to involve myself in the politics of my adoptive country, not to say regrettably lackadaisical about it.

However, when it comes to the seaweed...

You may well have heard about this, as the Anglo-saxon media has covered the subject quite a bit (and possibly rather more frankly than the French), so that friends of friends with a holiday business on the coast found that their British visitors are hesitant to book, and some who did come said that when they told people they were visiting the Breton coast they replied 'You're not going swimming are you?'

Brittany is the most heavily intensively farmed area of France, which is one of the largest agricultural producers in the world. All the pretty pastoralism and littoral beauty I wax lyrical about here is threatened and blighted by this fact. The romantic notion of the sturdy and independant French peasant farmer living a simple life close to nature is more and more of a pernicious fiction, and the power that the big farming lobby is large, aggressive and ugly.

60% of France's substantial pig production and 40% of that of veal and of poultry - I don't have the figures for dairy but that is significant too, is concentrated in this corner of the country. It generates vast amounts of nitrates, which wash through the soil and pollute the water table, which in turn pollutes the sea in the wide warm shallow bays of the area.

This causes an explosion of a soft green seaweed, which gets washed up on the beaches. It gets thicker and thicker, then forms a crust and rots underneath it. On top it looks like used toilet paper, below the putrefying substance generates a highly toxic sulphurous gas. Last year, two dogs who wandered out into it died as a result of inhaling this, this year in August on the bay on the other side of the peninsular near Lannion, a horse died and its rider was hopitalised. Then recently a worker in a process where the seaweed is collected and recycled into more fertiliser (we've seen it in the garden centre, branded as organic and 100% natural from the coasts of Brittany) also died as a result of contact with it. Courageous doctors in both the latter cases insisted on autopsies to establish that the seaweed gas was indeed the cause of death.

The best article in English I've found is one from the Independent, which is here (there is unfortunately some kind of script running on the page which may cause problems, but it should be possible to disable it). The depressing is that the piece is from 2001, and the only thing that has changed is that the problem is, if anything, worse, and it has been established that the gas is fatally toxic.

After the horse died, the Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, graciously descended to the place where it happened for about five minutes, but the government's response so far has been to promise more help to clean up the beaches, even investigating the possibility of collecting the weed at sea before it comes to land. Needless to say, this does not address the root of the problem. Meanwhile, authorisation continues to be given for further pig and poultry and dairy farms to produce food which the farmers complain they cannot sell at any kind of price that makes sense.

(Trans: For a sustainable form of agriculture, reform the CAP)

Why? Subsidies. The Common Agricultural Policy ( CAP, or PAC in French, who turn all acronyms round!). Even if you can't sell it you make money just by producing it, X euros for every pig, or chicken or turkey, or veal-calf or whatever . The economist Jeffrey Sachs once said* "I have never mastered EU agricultural policy, because I figured if I did so it would drive me into such a surrealistic world that I might never climb out of that twilight zone again", so dense and intractible has the Policy become. But though the organisation of it may be diabolically complicated, the injustice of it isn't. Europe's not alone in this, all the developed world is at it.

(Trans: Holy cow, but it's complicated! Too much fertiliser = too much milk = crisis = pollution = poison seaweed. What are we going to do??? )

Then there's big agri-business, in whose interests it is to promote and maintain these ways of doing things.

(Trans: For the water, we need another kind of agriculture)

The raising of livestock for food emits as much carbon and other greenhouse gases as transport, and only looks set to continue. In a world which is growing in population, 10 kilos of vegetable protein are required to produce one of mammal protein. The industrial livestock units are cruel, unhealthy, polluting, horrible places which we as a species ought to be ashamed to be responsible for. Most of us know all this.

Something is badly wrong with this situation. I get on well with my farming neighbours; I have little choice, but it isn't just that. I'm only two generations from the land myself, when hardship and failure and too many mouths drove my Somerset grandfather off it. No sight was sweeter to my father than a ploughed field, though he was always wary of bucolic nostalgia about life on the land before the industrialisation and mechanisation of agriculture, he knew how brutal and bitter it could be. I enjoy talking about farming matters, seeing land used contructively, the rhythm of the seasons, the space and patterning of human cultivation, all that. Though I've never had to get used to the harsh realities of it, and killing things, I'm fairly realistic and unsentimental about these facts. I am not a vegetarian, for a number of reasons, not only apathy and carnivorous greed. We've tried growing some of our own food, and though there's much to be said for it, it's led me to recognise that there's also much to be said for leaving it to the professionals, or at least for having a class of professionals whose job it is to do it on a larger scale in a systematised way.

I know that even quite big business farmers work very hard, often still in family concerns, which gives them a strong sense of ownership, take few holidays, and despite - or perhaps because of, since the whole matter is so utterly inefficient and dysfunctional - the system of subsidies, many are struggling to make anything worthwhile out of it. As far as I can gather the youngsters are all sent off to agricultural college that teaches them to do things according to the status quo, and until it's worth their while to do it another way they're not likely to. It's a hard life and they aren't going to voluntarily make it harder for themselves, not without a change in the incentives and disincentives.

And they aren't the only ones. While the organic/biologique market continues as a sideline, the majority of people are more than happy to pork out on cheap, factory produced pork and similar. Food is cheaper in real terms than it's ever been, (and pork is quite literally dirt cheap) but here and elsewhere, people are still grumbling about the perceived reduction in their pouvoir d'achat, their spending power. Which is, of course, real for many, but we also need to get real about the other costs of cheap food.

I could go on and on, but I have done so enough. Depressed by the indifference we have encountered from people we thought might have more to say about the issue, E. and I decided we would get more involved, and went along to a demonstration organised by the various environmental groups, including 'Halte aux Marées Vertes' ('Stop the Green Tides' , a reference to the 'Marées Noires' the 'Black Tides' of earlier oil slick pollution), at Hillion, where some of the worst green weed pollution is evident.

Being northern European, we arrived more or less at the scheduled time (though E, who is Dutch is a notoriously unpunctual person, which probably has nothing to do with nationality at all). This meant that nothing had really got started at all, and people were a bit thin on the ground. Nothing here really starts to happen until quite late in the afternoon.

However, the above gives a general impression of the meeting place, with the beach behind and the little St Maurice chapel in the distance. The red tractor trailer was the speakers' platform, and to the right was a bar and coffee stand, and... surely not, yes, they are grilling...

pork sausages!
'I can't believe it!' exclaimed E

'They're maybe special biologique, non-polluting, sustainably farmed pork sausages...' I suggested.

'I'm going to go and ask!'

And she did, adopting a somewhat inquisitorial attitude.

On learning that they were indeed magical and innocent sausages, E, who at 63 has maintained that figure largely through disregarding such unnecessary details as lunch, decided that she rather fancied one, but ate it straight, with neither frîtes nor galette, which earned her some puzzled looks.

Tom stayed home with Molly. His general lack of hearing and comprehension would have made it difficult, and I wasn't sure Mol would enjoy the crowds and waiting around either. though there were quite a few dogs, who probably weren't giving the cause their full attention.

Also, we were a little afraid that the seaweed intself might pose a threat for a dog, though in fact the beach had been immaculately cleaned by the environmentalists themselves, to make sure it was safe and also to show how it should look there. I've never seen it looking so beautiful.

As the afternoon went on, the numbers increased, and plenty of banners began to flutter. The red ones here are for the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, Besancenot's new left alliance job. While the whole business certainly makes one feel decidedly anti-capitalist, if one didn't already, the old politics of left and right, with their focus on human society and endless economic growth often seem to miss the point, and the words 'bandwagon' and 'jumping', to say nothing of 'opportunistic' do rather come to mind... Still, apparently they've dropped their Trotskyite agenda, and consider themselves a feminist party, though they make no mention of patriarchy theory... oh go read the Wiki entry yourselves if you're interested!

Some of the press I read after described it as a demonstration by ecologists, which is fair enough, and yet many who were there didn't necessarily typically fit the profile, but were obviously just concerned ordinary members of the public. Indeed many were simply residents of Hillion, fed up with the blight on their beautiful beaches year after year and of having to pay for the clean-up.
I have to say though, I was heartened to see so many un-coiffed and untamed heads of natural grey hair, more than I think I've seen since I've lived here.

The T-shirt above was a puzzle; many banners, t-shirts etc were saying how unwanted pigs were, while this one says 'Welcome to the pig/pork'!

Above is André Ollivro, who began the campaign, and who is interviewed in the Independent article above. The campaign makes clear 'there is no question of stigmatising farmers, who, for the most part, are themselves the victims of the system'. However, some farmers haven't seen it that way, and took it on themsleves to dump large hay bales in his front garden so he couldn't leave his house. Petulant if not fatal.

His speaking was quite clear and interesting to us, but many of the speakers had a style of oratory which was quite monotonous and difficult to follow. E's French is better than mine (she is Dutch after all), but she found it hard too. So we hung around for an hour or two, signed all the petitions and paid up to join the campaign, then went on our way. Apparently later on they all went down to the beach and started to party, but, typical northern Europeans, we couldn't be doing with the long moment d'attente before the action, and missed it.

I gently chided the people from the Halte aux Marées Vertes campaign for their lack of internet presence; the newsletter isn't regularly updated and the website is fairly non-existent. They said they knew but they'd got someone who was going to bring it up to scratch. I'm thinking of
offering to translate for them so more English speakers can find out and get involved. It might be that a commitment to some very specific local green politics will be my way to growing out of my sense of apathy about and detachement from civic life here.

One banner of a pig's head and crossbones caught my eye.

Someone had put a lot of effort into it.
In the background of the picture is the house of the philosopher Georges Palante, who lived in Hillion, and in fact taught lycee in St Brieuc, as I did for a very short while. (I hope he had a better time than I did!).

Though he once stood as a socialist candidate, Palante was sceptical of the movement, and a staunch individualist. According to the Wiki page on him

"His thinking (was) also critical towards the mass "herd instinct", which he thought oppresses and prevents individuals from developing fully. He did not, however, oppose social networks, and insisted that his philosophy did not seek to destroy society for the benefit of the individual, but to help to build new networks of social interaction."

Which sounds OK to me.

On the way out, we spotted this small philosopher, absorbed in what looked like some more serious words.

* in the International Herald Tribune in 2002, quoted in '50 facts that should change the world' by Jessica Williams.

I have more pictures from the holiday, which I will continue to post, but wanted to get this one done while it was still topical. I am aware these are complex issues, about which I don't pretend to know everything, or claim any particular moral high ground on, but have felt moved to say and (try to) do something about. Thanks for sticking with such a long post; there won't be any as long as this again for a while, as I have a dozen other things I should really be doing!


Rouchswalwe said...

Combining one's efforts with those of one's neighbors in a worthy local cause is important in our day. It builds awareness and a sense of community and increases communication skills, no doubt. All best as you and your friends wade out into these waters, sweet Lucy.

Plutarch said...

I remember a visit to Britanny when the nitrate business had not become a threat. The seaweed was prolific but quite natural, and the local farmers used it, as far as I know succesfully as they had done for generations, to enrich the soil. Now I can only agree that it is probably better for food to become more expensive rather than allow poisons to kill us off in the long run. But for the poor, it remains a quandary.

Dave King said...

You and I both. I, too, am all for the quiet life these days, I who was once chased by a policeman round the lions in Trafalgar Square (Suez), but there are some things you have to put your fighting irons for and cheap food that may one day kill you, seems to me to be one of those issues. Sad to hear that the colleges are bastions of the status quo, though.

Barrett Bonden said...

The audible message may have been a desire not to stigmatise the farmers but you can bet that's what many were thinking. The problem with French farmers is that individually they are probably lovable but en masse they do not encourage sympathy. Piling manure on the steps of the hotel de ville can be considered one of their milder gestures. And, boy, they do seem to dump on tourists. Picketing access to the Channel ports is a soft touch because tourists' needs can be so easily identified and then stifled. But how can this be considered direct pressure on whoever needs pressurising? I admire your participation but fear, in your place, I would have laid abed.

christopher said...

I can't think of a less ideological issue, one that ought to be obvious to anyone even if the solution isn't. I'm happy to hear of your activism in regard to the toxic putrefaction of seaweed and it's related issues.

The Crow said...



Granny J said...

Good for you, Lucy!Perhaps most important is that this issue is LOCAL! At my stage in life, I find that grand causes & ideology strike me as too damned abstract. On the other hand, any number of LOCAL issues challenge me to join in....

RB said...

Yes, I agree with Granny J, I think it is much better to get involved in local issues. I think there is a danger with some national issues that you just get the "serial protesters" turning up who enjoy a good demo and travel from one to the next as a kind of leisure activity. When local groups are strong they can join with other local groups to have a national voice.

I read a report the other week, not the article you linked, on the nitrate problems. Will try to remember what or where it is. I have read a lot over the past few weeks whilst preparing some tenders and have been too lazy to keep a list of those I ended up not using. I think it was a public consultation based article but I may be wrong. If I find it I will send you a link.

Until I read the article, I had no idea the problem had grown so serious. It is good to see that people are mobilised to act on this.

apprentice said...

I think nitrate run-off is a huge issue, and not just from farmland either, sewage ends up in the sea too.

I remember walking on the beach in Belguim a while back and being evolted at the sea, it was like brown soup.

I'm not sure what the solution is Lucy, but nothing will happen until people protest about it, and the French are very effective protestors.

Lucy said...

Thanks all for your interest in this rant.

RW - yes, and we felt heartened simply to know there were at least some other people who felt as we did. They turnout looked quite substantial.

Joe -I too am often tempted by cheap food, particularly when I am short of time as well as money, or lacking in heart or motivation to put food together more imaginatively. Eating well, ethically and thriftily is possible, but it takes time, effort and education, and also is hard when you feel poor in spirit as well as cash. But really the onus shouldn't be on poor people to have to choose to spend more than they comfortably can; the food is artificially cheap because of the way the economics are structured.

Dave - nice to see you, I was tickled about the lions! I have to say I'm have only hearsay evidence of the colleges' line. I will find out more...

BB - well, 3 pm was quite late to be abed! I've come to the conclusion that the stroppiest farmers enjoy their reputation as thugs and bullies, as most thugs and bullies do. And while they aren't all like that, I feel those ones rather act as the others' rottweillers.

GJ and RB - local is indeed where to act, but really the solutions must lie further afield.

I must go, I'll answer the rest shortly!

Lucy said...

...so, yes as I was saying.

RB, I'd like to see the link if you find it, thanks.

Anna - sewage certainly is a problem, but there is strong evidence in this case that it is a fairly minor element compared to the agricultural pollution. This is quite important because the opponents of the campaign claim that farming is being unfairly blamed for pollution arising from domestic and particularly tourist development along the coasts, which passes the buck, ie the responsibility and costs of fixing the problem, back to the mairies and residents of the coastal communes. Eau et Rivieres, a longer-standing, more general environmental group on water, originally started by anglers but now far more wide-ranging, and whose scientific credentials are convincing, have published pretty clear data about this.
Indeed, the French are known to be noisy protesters, but certain protesters are heard louder than others. The farmers among others make sure their voices are heard, or if not their actions speak louder (see BB's comment and my response), but environmental action is still considered marginal and often not so well-reported, understood or supported. Food and where it comes from is a big and interesting subject, priorities are different, I suppose you could say... perhaps I need to say more on this in another post.

Thanks all again for your interest.

Avus said...

Perhaps the prime minister should have "descended gracefully" into the seaweed and sat there for a while - he would have got the point

Isabelle said...

Very interesting - none of this has reached any papers I read.

I'm vegetarian myself but I wouldn't claim that this way of eating causes no problems either.

moe lauher said...

Lucy, I'm going to have to read this again to process it all. Thanks for the information

Anil P said...

It is indeed heartening to see you get involved. I'm guilty of apathy as well, in stark contrast with my early years where I was involved in everything.

Reminds me of that saying, "We need to hang together else we hang separately."

Seaweed can be detrimental. Early action can stymie it but only long term measures that prevent its occurrence from being permanent.

The clean up must've been mighty hard work.

Jan said...

I learned a lot from this, Lucy.
I once did some pastel paintings of seaweed...it looks superb, so lovely, so many colours ( surprisingly many) but it can be so dangerous...
I am regretfully lackadaisical too....!

Crafty Green Poet said...

oh gosh, so much of agriculture has lost its necessary balance with nature, though at least these days there is a very encouraging move towards more understanding methods, though whether this can truly defeat big business and political interests time alone will tell...

Very interesting post, thanks

Thanks also for your comment on my blog - you asked what type of paint i used on my ladybird mobile, I used the paint that is used to paint on glass, its equally good for painting on clear plastics...

Dale said...


Bee said...

Cheap food is an abomination. I don't know how we turn the tide back now, but we must -- and not just on the "biologique" fringe.

My parents saw a documentary on U.S. agribusiness (specifically, the meat industry) recently -- I can't recall the name of it just now -- but the upshot was that my mother said she would never buy bargain meat again. We certainly pay for it in the long-run . . .

I admire you for stepping into the fray, and also for taking the time to write this very cogent essay.

Mouse said...

I've been aware of this problem for years, indeed I ranted on the topic during on OU French Day School back in 2002.

And I've been following this summer's news about 'les algues'

So good for you!
And thanks for an informative article