By Monte Reel and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 18, 2005
MERCEDES, Uruguay -- On a balmy afternoon early last week, Guillermo Symonds watched his team of 13 farmhands saddle their horses for the daily roundup of the 5,500 rust-and-white Hereford beef cattle on his 13,000-acre ranch in western Uruguay.
Across the globe, on the same afternoon in the blustery Burgundy region of central France, Jean-Pierre and Brigitte Fleury sat next to their living room fireplace eating Savoy cake as they monitored their 360 white Charolais beef cattle on television via video cameras in nearby barns.
The prospect of giving large ranches such as Symonds' Uruguayan operation greater access to French dinner tables terrifies the Fleurys. Their 670-acre farm -- which ranks in size among the top 10 percent of French beef farms -- is a mere one-twentieth the size of Symonds' spread.
"We know we're not competitive," said Jean-Pierre Fleury, 52, a third-generation farmer. "The flip side is that French farmers have not only an agricultural role, but a social role. I can't think of any other country where the relationship with food is as strong as it is here."
France's romanticized view of its farmers has helped make the nation one of the most protected agricultural economies in the world. However, at a World Trade Organization meeting now underway in Hong Kong, France and other European nations are facing pressure to slash farm subsidies and open their markets to foreign competitors. The European Union has balked, and many of the 149 WTO member countries -- especially agricultural exporters from the developing world, such as Uruguay -- blame Europe for an impasse on a global trade accord.
Back on their farms, Jean-Pierre Fleury and Guillermo Symonds represent opposing sides in the agricultural wars being fought in the meeting chambers thousands of miles from their pastures and barns.
In the spring and summer in France's Burgundy region, Fleury's white Charolais cattle graze in rolling pastures framed by manicured hedgerows. The orange tile roofs of the nearby hamlet of La Mer poke above the tree line at the end of one field.
For Fleury, who has the permanently ruddy cheeks of an outdoorsman, the postcard landscape is as much a part of farming as the marbled Charolais steaks he produces for the country's most discerning butchers. He thinks France and its European neighbors should pay for both, with subsidies that allow him to maintain the bucolic look of his farm and tariffs that protect him from competing with Symonds' cheaper Uruguayan steaks.
Fleury's annual subsidies are based not only on how he treats his animals, but how much he contributes to the charm of the Burgundy countryside that attracts droves of French and foreign tourists eager to view and photograph "traditional" French landscapes and lifestyles.
"The French consumer has good-quality meat and the French citizens have their countryside preserved," said Fleury in defense of the subsidies that cost European taxpayers an estimated $47 billion a year and the high tariffs that protect him from competition from thousands of tons of foreign beef.
Fleury's farm, large by French standards, is representative of the trend in French agriculture: Though the number of farms in France is rapidly declining, the size of the surviving farms has increased.
His grandparents farmed 50 acres. Fleury inherited about 250 acres and 120 head of cattle from his parents in 1977. Today he farms 670 acres with 360 Charolais breeding and beef cattle. He expanded his farm by buying up land from retiring farmers.
Many of the quaint stone farmhouses and barns in small villages have been abandoned by farmers because they don't meet tough new requirements for sanitation and safety.
In their place, Fleury and other farmers are building massive, featureless sheds housing hundreds of cattle and sheep during the cold winter months. Hay is spread in the stalls by long-necked machines that spit the straw over the heads of the cattle.
Fleury's cattle are monitored from birth, tagged with a number that follows them to the slaughter house. He is required to maintain records on every vaccine or medical treatment each animal receives. In addition, he must keep for five years the records of any fertilizers or chemicals used on his grazing land.
"We have records for what has happened in the life of every animal the consumer eats," said Fleury. "Cattle farmers don't understand why France should be flooded with meat from the other end of the world where these safeguards are not enforced."
Guillermo Symonds, a 44-year-old rancher with a thick mustache and windblown brown hair, couldn't agree less with Fleury's reasoning.
On his Uruguayan ranch, parrots sail over pastures of grass that is tall and sparse in places, short and thick in others. Ceiba trees flower near mossy brooks. Bright yellow lotus flowers haphazardly dot the rolling plains.
The laws of international trade -- not the laws of nature -- did the most to shape this landscape.
The protein-rich flowers were sown by Symonds after fears of mad cow disease prompted Uruguay to protect its main source of exports by banning animal proteins in cattle feed.
"Uruguay takes that kind of thing very seriously, because unlike other countries we don't have a lot of other industries to fall back on," said Symonds, driving his pickup truck across the roadless terrain. "If we lose our meat exports, it's all over."
Symonds -- like Fleury a third-generation farmer -- raises about 5,500 head of cattle on his ranch in western Uruguay, a region where livestock easily outnumbers humans and provides the base for the nation's export economy. About two-thirds of the country's exports come from an agricultural sector that is dominated by cattle, like the Herefords that graze on Symonds' 13,000-acre ranch.
The appearance of the terrain would change considerably if the European Union decided to ease tariffs on foreign beef -- a possibility that Symonds has been tracking in the international press.
He now raises all of his cattle from birth, but more exports to Europe -- a region that pays the highest prices in the world for choice cuts of beef -- would allow him to buy adult cows to fatten, he said. He would open more land for pasture. He'd likely hire more workers, and the number of cows they would round up for slaughter each week would climb to new highs.
But last year, Uruguay's beef exports to Europe equaled only 15 percent of total sales, while 72 percent reached North America.
The reason can be found in the export tariff structure that applies to Uruguay -- a system that Symonds has committed to memory. A tariff of 20 percent is assessed on the first 6,300 tons exported to Europe, but the tariffs skyrocket to between 98 and 176 percent for all additional sales. By contrast, American importers pay only a 4 percent tariff on its first 20,000 tons of beef purchased from Uruguay, and 26 percent for additional shipments.
Uruguayan farmers have benefited from the misfortune of their larger neighbors, Brazil and Argentina. The two countries are South America's dominant meat exporters, but each has faced export barriers recently because of incidents of foot-and-mouth disease. Uruguay has picked up the slack, sending a record number of cows to slaughter last month. But the expected lifting of those trade restrictions on Argentina and Brazil means that Symonds and his neighbors haven't forgotten about Europe.
"In the rich, developed countries, there's a growing demand for the kind of natural, grass-fed beef that we raise here," said Symonds. "So things are going well now, but if the tariffs were lowered in Europe, I think things would be going very, very well."
Moore reported from La Mer, France.