28 Feb, 2019

Migration is a big chance for the European agriculture of tomorrow. Interview with Sébastien Abis

Conversation with Sébastien Abis, Director, Club DEMETER, Associate Research Fellow at IRIS.

1. What’s your take on the Global Compact for Migration signed at the end of 2018 in Morocco? What kind of repercussions can it have on the local agricultural systems of North Africa?

The global compact for migration improved data management regarding international migration processes, it promotes the tackling of economic, environment-related and political causes of forced migration and stresses the goal of “integrated, secure and coordinated” border management. This agreement allows to better understand and to manage the migration’s flows, having a kind of multilateralism between the Europeans countries. But, it is also true, that in Europe we have been an instrumentalization of the Global Compact and there are a lot of negatives comments on it. We cannot say if this agreement will work or not, in the short term. It is necessary to wait months or years to see which effects this Global Compact will bring. Even its effects in North Africa is complicated to predict. But this agreement could increase the interest of many country toward the rural agriculture. Themes like the food security and the development of rural areas can be better managed if it is possible to control the hopeless migration. Last but not least, migration issues put the Mediterranean Area at the centre of international affairs and the water-food-climate nexus at the core of Mediterranean challenges.

2. The search for safe food sources has often determined the history of countries and in the 21st century food security has emerged as one of the focal points of the global strategic competition. Do you think that we tend to underestimate these truths? What kind of lessons can we draw from our past for the future of an increasingly hungry world?

Peace, stability and a climate of collective confidence in society constitute essential determining factors for any agricultural development and food security strategy. Without these decisive components, the historic equation to solve for agriculture –namely, feeding a growing population with constantly evolving consumer habits– becomes highly complex. Agricultural problems can become even more aggravated if the geographic conditions prove particularly unfavourable. The scarcity of water, land ownership boundaries and climate stress undeniably accentuate pressure on agriculture. To understand the interactions between agriculture, food and security, it is useful to put the challenges posed into perspective over time and recall certain factors. Is important to consider the importance of the long term. The history of the world and the Mediterranean region is full of events during which agricultural and food issues have played a significant role in the deployment of power strategies, crises triggering or the course of wars.

3. The Mediterranean region is perhaps one the best paradigm of our age’s imbalances. On the one hand the Northern shore, characterized by a high degree of food security, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. On the other hand the Southern shore, a space of open and covert conflicts marked by a compression of available resources and unprecedented demographic turmoil. What perspectives to reach the Sustainable Development Goals?

As focused in the last CIHEAM report “Mediterra 2018” (see the link below), migration is recognised as an important factor in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Given the significant income that rural populations receive from migrants and the transfer of technology and skills made possible by their mobility, it is essential to support the potential development of migration. It brings new life to abandoned territories, lifts them out of poverty and can be a lever for rural development and a provider of sustainable and innovative food value chains. It would be appropriate to not only strive to improve the working conditions of migrant agricultural workers but also to set up educational and training schemes, which is a major issue, particularly for forcibly displaced populations. Language training must be supplemented by technical training adapted to the knowledge and employment opportunities that host countries are likely to offer, especially in rural areas.

4. Migration affects the majority of rural and agricultural areas in the African-Mediterranean region. How these migratory flows impact on the development of local economies?

Migration phenomena and their impacts on territories of origin and destination now occupy a major place in national and international political agendas. In the Mediterranean region that has been historically and structurally shaped by movements of people, today, they question our perception of inequalities and territorial imbalances with regards to the emergence of new socio-economic and environmental issues. As the first manifestation of these migrations, rural exodus has an impact on most Mediterranean rural and agricultural areas. It affects local economy and services, hampers the attractiveness of the territory, especially in the eyes of the young population and leads to the waste of invaluable local knowledge and know-how. It also leads to the loss of valuable human potential despite the fact that the agricultural and fisheries sectors are providers of sustainable jobs and training for a growing youth. At a time when food crises are resurging and pressures on available natural resources are increasing, migration can also affect the food and water security of the most fragile and poorest areas. It is therefore necessary to recall that migrants firstly move within their country and in their region of origin. South-North flows remain marginal when compared to South-South migration.

Another important aspect is the question of the sea and the blue economy. Nowadays the 20% of protein consumption in the world comes from the sea. When we talk about agriculture, we also include all the fishers that are threatened every day by the migration flows. Their boats are often used to bring migrants from a cost to another, pressing the majority of them to leave this job because of those problems. One solution could be to make some agreements with the fishers to play an active part in the manage of the flows, giving them the instruments and the possibilities to maintain coastal fishing. Let me also draw the attention to the Internet issue. Rural population is more fragile when e-connectivity lacks in the countryside. This is a constraint for daily life, especially for the Youth, but also for business and professional activities. We need to implement Internet everywhere and we have to consider the e-commerce as one of the solutions for a better inclusive development of rural communities. Without these modern tools, young people will probably leave the rural areas.

5. France’s agricultural model is regarded as one of the best in the world. What’s its secret? What’s the role of migrant workers? What role the CAP in providing an important source of funding in the fight against unethical practices?

In France there are controversial reflection, analysis and politics about agriculture. But they are focused in the country itself. That’s legitim, but it is also important to see what is happening in the rest of the planet where there are more difficulties compares to our country, there is a kind of innovation that is stronger than our and at least there are a lot of politics that are focus on the agricultural and food issue, to preserve the food security as a determinant of development of peace and stability also in the others countries. So, it is necessary to have a global vision of agriculture.

Even though time passes, the only thing that is changing is that people need to eat, several times a day. So, it is fundamental that all the planet get active in front of this reality, in a way that is purely strategic. It is important to also remember that the majority of immigrants that arrive in Europe, work in the agricultural sector. This is a complicated and hard work, one that is no longer attractive to most Europeans. We have to pay attention about the following trend: the migrantization of European agriculture and of rural areas. Thanks to the work of those immigrants many rural areas in Europe still exist. Schools, hospitals, farms…stay operational thanks to them. The phenomenon of migration is a big chance for the European agriculture of tomorrow. It is possible that in the long term the migrants will be the agriculture of the future. We can also observer this every day, especially in the catering and food service sector. In Paris about half restaurants are offering international cooking. They offer the opportunity to taste different flavours, discover cultures from all over the world and diversify our feeding routine. That means today in Europe food diversity and not just food security.

6. The past years have seen a significant change in terms of both number and mode of arrival of migrants in Europe, peaking in 2015, when 1.25 million asylum requests were registered by EU Member States. Migration has become a mainstay in the debate among private citizens and heads of State alike but to date EU migration policy has tended to take a short-term approach focused on the emergency response. How do we encourage the evolution of the EU’s response to migration, taking it beyond the emergency management to address the environmental and food-related drivers of migration?

The problem of migration is global. It is important to have a long-term vision. The construction of a unified Europe, which began after the Second World War, and the Common Agricultural Policy that consolidated it as of the 1960s are the key examples of virtuous agricultural geopolitics when peace settled in for the long term in territories. Water shortages and competition for its use, land shortage and deterioration of agricultural land, increasing climate constraints and weather disruptions, rapid changes in food demand in the production context with limited opportunities, marginalization of rural regions and frequent contempt towards farming populations: these are many invisible conflicts that are unfortunately heightening food tensions in the southern and eastern Mediterranean.

Peace for decades, a solid body of rights to assert and rules to abide by, professional organization by sectors for farmers and the agri-food industry but also cooperation at all levels – local as well as national, not to mention supranational with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – have allowed European countries to reach an exceptional level of food security (quantitative and qualitative). The secret is a long-term geopolitical vision for the construction of the EU wherein food was considered a priority, confident mobilization of the agricultural and rural forces, well accompanied by authorities convinced of the strategic dimension of agriculture, research and training adapted to social, technical and environmental change. Geopolitics are essential for understanding the agricultural vulnerabilities of this region. As in the rest of the world, Europe and the Mediterranean region remain dependent on this tenacious agricultural history.

Some recent publications


- (Coll), Mediterra 2008. Migration and inclusive rural development in the Mediterranean, CIHEAM-AFD Report, Les Presses de Sciences-Po, Paris, December 2018;

- Sébastien Abis (sous la direction), Le Déméter 2019, DEMETER – IRIS Editions, Paris, Février 2019.