Like a snake biting its own tail, the city eats into the very lands that nourish it
It is a city to be explored on an appetite. A buttery crepe at the foot of the Eiffel tower. A picnic on the Pont des Arts, or along the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin. A grizzly winter’s afternoon whiled away on the crowded terrace of a left bank café. Against a backdrop of iconic monuments and museums, it is for the promise of good wine, crusty baguettes, warm croissants, sunday food markets and other epicurean delights that millions are lured to Paris every year. For Doisneau may have made the kiss an icon of the city’s pull. But food lovers would argue that his collection of photographs of life at the former Les Halles food market are more quintessentially Paris.
With a greater population of 12 million, and scores of hungry visitors, feeding the city is a colossal affair. There are here, about 11 boulangeries to the square kilometer, 82 farmer’s markets and more than 10,000 restaurants across the city. Food is omnipresent in Paris as in any of the world’s great cities. But with the exception of supermarkets that work with their own centralised purchasing establishments, most of the food that enters the city comes through a single gateway -- the marché de Rungis -- the world’s largest food market.
At the crack of dawn the market comes alive, and one gets a sense of the invisible hand that feeds the city. Of it’s sheer scale and sophistication. Of its seeming infallibility. For whatever the Gods have in store for the country’s farmers at any given time - droughts, flooding, epidemics - there’s a feeling here that this place would emerge untouched.
There are nearly 1,200 wholesalers operating at the market, and through countless specialty pavilions spread over 232 hectares, they help funnel about 1.5 million tons of food to Paris every year. Rent is paid by these entrepreneurs - not by the square meter - but by the number of service doors at their disposal. A reminder that the nature of this business is not to stockpile merchandise, but round it up and re-dispatch it as swiftly as possible. At 2pm, after the morning rush, in a vast airy building among large crates of sweet smelling produce, a few men remain to tidy up. In solitude they prepare for the next day.
In a volume about how food was sourced for the city in the 18th and 19th century, French historian Reynald Abad dubbed Paris “Le Grand Marché” (the great market), for it’s ability to draw in food from all corners of the kingdom. He describes a concentration of wealth from the city so powerful that it was able to drain food from ever far-reaching parts of the land. It was this voracious urban appetite that ultimately turned farmers away from subsistence farming, to what Abad refers to as speculative farming.
“Some farmers turned their fields into prairies, choosing to produce for the market rather than to feed themselves,” says Abad. “The region of Maine, which specialised in rearing chickens, could only produce poorer grains. They turned this to their advantage by using the grains to feed poultry.”
Despite the city’s powerful reach however, food production was also highly localised. The northern suburbs of Paris were then vast fields of cabbage, supplying a staple for the poor. The eastern Montreuil suburb meanwhile was reputed for its cultivation of peaches, one of many non-native products acclimatised to suit the whims of the city’s elite.
Food production around the city followed the concentric rings first described by Johann von Thunen, a prominent nineteenth century economist. Highly perishable items like eggs, dairy, fruits and vegetables needing to get to market quickly would be farmed closest to the city. While grains and finally, livestock, would be produced further away. But as the population of Paris multiplied, the city nibbled away at its agricultural lands. Very few of the periurban farms that once supplied the wealthy with fresh produce remain. What is left today are the great cereal plains that supplied the bulk of the city’s sustenance during the old regime, (which for the impoverished masses, essentially made for a pitiful diet of rather good bread and cabbagey soup)
Over the past century, the population of greater Paris has nearly quadrupled, swelling from 3.4 million at the end of the 19th century to nearly 12 million today. This growth was accompanied by the dietary transition, a shift towards a diet rich in animal protein that occurs as wealth increases. The baguette was not entirely ditched, but it was sliced in half.
Despite the need for a lot more food to be produced on shrinking agricultural space, Paris’ hinterland, along with neighbouring provinces in the northwestern part of the country, still supply the city with about 70% of its daily protein intake, according to a study entitled, The Paris Foodprint in 2030. The city’s food miles have increased considerably of course, but compared with many of the world’s industrialised cities, they’ve remained within reach. In 1896, food travelled an average of 266 kms to reach the capital. Today grains are sourced within an average 500 km radius, while meats, and fruits and vegetables travel 660km and 780km respectively. Farm productivity, in other words, has largely kept pace with city’s growing appetite.
To make sense of this impressive development, there is Gilles Billen, a respected professor at the University Pierre et Marie Curie and author of the Paris Foodprint report. Billen is behind a whole series of studies that attempt to untangle the competing demands the city makes on its territory: for food, but also for drinking water and energy. To understand much of his body of work however, one must go back to the basics: back to the nitrogen cycle and to the beginning of time when life was born of the abundance of this basic element in the atmosphere. Seen through Billen’s eyes, the history of life on Earth appears to be dictated by the N element. And today’s carnivorous Parisian diet too.
It goes something like this. Nitrogen is needed by all plants to grow, but only certain types of plants such as lentils, beans and other legumes, are able to source it from the atmosphere, transferring some of the nitogen it back to the soil, and thus making it available for the next rounds of crops. The only other way farmers could get nitrogen to crops otherwise, was by first cycling food through the stomachs of farm animals to produce manure. There was a time in other words, when farm animals were as much a fertiliser mechanism as they were a food source. And securing nitrogen for agriculture had always included these two agronomic fundamentals: clever crop rotations and manure-based fertilisation.
And then, everything changed. The discovery of synthetic fertilisers heralded what Billen calls the third nitrogen era: an age when this life-giving element was released from its atmospheric shackles. “Nitrogen had always been the limiting factor in agriculture,” says Billen. Yields on staple crops skyrocketed as the use of fertiliser increased year-after-year; and this period marked an ever-greater specialisation of agricultural territories in France, with regions in the west moving towards livestock breeding, and the greater Paris region becoming one of the world’s leading cereal producers. “Paris remained loyal to its farmers; but its farmers went looking elsewhere,” says Billen of the highly productive French agricultural sector gone global.
It’s popular with desk-bound office workers at lunchtime. Le jambon-beurre. A crusty baguette, some butter and a slice or two of ham. Nothing more. Add some cheese and you’ve got le mixte. There are several ways in which the city’s boulangeries bring these adored basics together. Trace the ingredients back to their farms however, and you find yourself at the heart of an environmental crisis in the making.
The Loire-Bretagne Water Agency has jurisdiction over a watershed that extends into the two main territories that come together to produce the jambon-beurre: parts of the greater Paris area - the country’s breadbasket, and Brittany to the west - specialised in intensive pig farming. Together they make up a large part of the territory that supplies some two-thirds of the city’s daily protein intake, according to the Paris Foodprint report.
The water agency is another place where you are likely to hear a lot of talk about nitrogen. It is grappling with an excess of N molecules trickling into its aquifers and washing up into waterways from two very different sources: the overuse of synthetic fertilisers that keep the vast fertile plains of greater Paris cranking record-breaking yields of wheat; and an ever-growing pile of unsavory manure from Breton pig farms.
The most visible symptom of agricultural pollution from nitrates is along a strip of Brittany's littoral, the Cotes d'Armor, a region of rugged, windswept beauty whose economy depends on what has become two diametrically-opposed activities: tourism and farming.
There are about 600 pigs per square kilometer in the area and pigs outnumber residents 3 to 1. But you’d be hard pressed to spot one rooting in a farmyard. Breton pigs are mainly reared in factory farms, or what the French call “hors sol” (off-land). Meaning, animals do not feed off what is grown on the land. Instead, they are packed into dark rank sheds until, sufficiently fattened with industrial feed, they are ripe for slaughter.
The by-product of pigs reared “off-land” in this way is what’s called in the business “slurry” - the ugly step-sister of manure, a once valued resource for the farm and a source of nitrogen. Slurry is part of the system’s design however: one that has intelligent creatures living immobilised on perforated concrete floors, above an enormous container that collects their waste. In what might otherwise be considered a closed-loop system, this waste is then spread liberally across the region’s cornfields which themselves supply a key ingredient in pig feed.
With some 14 million pigs generating slurry in the region, corn plantations are showered with 3 to 4 times the amount of fertiliser needed. When it rains, the excess washes away into rivers, ultimately draining into the Atlantic. Rich in nitrogen, the slurry fertilizes green algae naturally present in the marine environment, creating algal blooms that deplete oxygen levels in water - suffocating fish and marine life and creating dead zones that can no longer sustain life. As it washes ashore, the algae (seaweed) deposits on some of the prettiest beaches in the region. Here it decomposes, releasing hydrogen sulfide - a highly toxic gas. (The corpses of 36 wild boars were found on a beach during the summer of 2011; a carnage caused by the killer seaweed.)
Further inland meanwhile, wheat farmers in the greater Paris region are dousing their lands with fertilisers and pesticides produced in different kind of factory. These chemicals are also finding their way into the region’s waters, compromising drinking supplies for rural communities, and for Paris too.
Billen believes it’s still possible to reconcile food production and drinking water however, and that Paris could sustainably source both from its hinterland. In a previous study, he shows that a full-scale conversion to organic agriculture in the region would eventually bring the nitrogen cycle back in check. “Organic farming is a win-win. You get wheat without resorting to fertilisers and pesticides, and you get water of very good quality. But it only makes sense if you reintroduce animals on farms,” says Billen.
This is very good news for carnivores. But for the average Parisian it means cutting by about half the daily protein intake from meat - down from 60 to 70% today to about 30 to 40%. It also means eating better meat. Meat made of animals raised on farms rather than factories.
This protein mix also happens to be where nutrition and soil science converge. Dubbed the “demitarian”, it is a diet said to correspond well with our nutritional needs. But it is also one that - as the world population continues to escalate - can be reasonably sustained on a global level. “I think of it as the fair diet,” says Billen, evoking the dietary transition now underway in the world’s emerging economies.
Paris is an island. Or so its region is called. Ile-de-France, (island of France). The agglomeration harbors 20% of the French population, on a small patch that covers a mere 2% of the country’s territory.
But the city’s footprint spans well beyond it’s physical boundaries. According to a study carried out by the WWF in 2006, meeting the needs of the average Parisian - in terms of food, transportation, shelter and other services - requires 6 hectares. As Billen has shown, some of these hectares are sourced at proximity. But others are mobilised at great distances. There are sugar cane plantations of French colonies that sweeten some of the city’s best pastries. And great swathes of the Amazon that have been razed over to make way for genetically-modified soya plantations, an important ingredient - alongside corn - in Breton-pig-feed. There are plots of land given over to simply absorb the mountains of waste generated by city dwellers. Contained on a 10,500 hectare parcel, Paris monopolizes well over 12 million hectares to meet its needs, according to the study.
Yet closer to home, some 1,500 hectares of farmland are lost to urbanisation every year. Like a snake biting its own tail, the city eats into the very lands that immediately nourish it. Paris may boast of dozens of communal gardens where locals can now grow herbs, carrots and cherry tomatoes but the vast cabbage patches that once covered suburbs like Saint-Denis and Aubervilliers are long gone. And once the land has been paved over, there’s no going back.
This is the dilemma former Greenpeace campaigner Hélène Gassin faced when she became Vice-President of the Regional Council, in charge of the environment, agriculture and energy. One of her victories has included blocking a Formula 1 circuit planned on a fertile plot of land next to an important catchment area for drinking water. An organic farm has since been put in its place.
But despite such initiatives, less than 2% of the 580,000 hectares of farmland in the region are cultivated organically. And of Billen’s vision of clean drinking water and wholesome local food - the numbers seem to hint at a forlorn battle to be played out in the field, one farm at a time.
But these numbers only tell a part of the story. The other part is narrated at dinner tables across the city every day. In farmer’s markets and communal gardens. In bistros, diners and supermarkets. But here too, the story is nuanced. For nowhere can extremes be so readily witnessed than in a city - a place where beggars, bakers and bankers co-exist.
With every meal, Paris unwittingly sketches the fate of its countryside and seashores, near and far. Like all great cities, it has the power to draw in food and resources from all corners of the Earth. But it is also an island; a world unto itself, often unable to see beyond the splendour of its skyline, the many other worlds upon which it’s survival depends.
Carolyn Lebel is a Paris-based freelance journalist specialising in investigative reporting on environmental and social issues.
Like a snake biting its own tail, the city eats into the very lands that nourish it