Over 20,000 French farms could go bankrupt if the European Union concludes a major trade deal with four South American countries, France's biggest farm union warned Friday.
Christiane Lambert, head of the National Federation of Agricultural Holders' Unions, said France risked losing "between 20,000 and 25,000 farms" if the EU signs a deal allowing tens of thousands of tonnes of tariff-free South American beef into the bloc.
On Wednesday, beef farmers across France demonstrated against the deal which could see up to 99,000 tonnes of beef from the Mercosur trading bloc (Brazil -- the world's top exporter of the meat -- as well as Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) exported to Europe every year.
Some campaigners have raised concerns about the use of hormones in these countries which lead to artificially high growth rates in cattle -- a practice that is widespread in the United States but banned in Europe.
Lambert told BFM television she was worried the EU would agree to waive food security norms in return for access to a market of 260 million South American consumers for EU cars and auto parts, dairy products and other goods and services.
She complained that the use by South American producers of hormones and of meat and bone meal -- a type of feed banned in the EU since the BSE or "mad cow" crisis of the 1990s -- would allow them to undercut their French counterparts by up to 30 percent.
At a meeting Thursday with farmers, President Emmanuel Macron promised France would not budge on meat safety.
"There will never be beef with hormones in it in France. We shouldn't play with fear," he said, adding: "There will be no reduction in our social, environmental or health standards."
Negotiators from Mercosur and the EU resumed talks on Wednesday after edging closer to a deal during the last round in Brussels.
Paraguay's Foreign Minister Eladio Loizaga, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the Latin American bloc, said Monday that the two sides were in agreement on "90 percent" of the issues, including beef exports to Europe.
But EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan said it was "very open as to whether there will be a successful conclusion at this stage".
At the end of the previous round, the EU said it was willing to accept tariff-free imports of 99,000 tonnes of South American beef annually, compared to an initial offer of 70,000 tonnes.
That sparked outrage among European farmers who accused Brussels of a sellout.
Macron is expected to face questions on the issue when he visits the annual Paris farm show on Saturday.