China threatens essential French agricultural factory

Amiens (Somme), report

The tape that held the banner is too old, Karine and Christophe are forced to carry it at arm’s length for the photo. It has been more than a month since the words “ No to Chinese dumping » adorn the facade of the factory, located in the northern industrial zone of Amiens. Taken over by the French company MetabolicExporer (Metex) in 2021, this 40-hectare industrial site produces lysine, an amino acid intended to feed animals.

But, for two years, periods of partial unemployment have continued and turnover has plummeted. If it was around 270 million euros in 2021, it was more than halved in 2023 to fall to 132.4 million euros. Faced with these poor results, the factory was placed in receivership on March 22. The buyers had until Monday May 6 to make themselves known.

Widespread political mobilization

“ It’s a difficult period, we are in a company where employees often have between twenty and thirty years of seniority. They know each other very well and are committed to the company. Despite everything, we sense concern: we have gone from 350 to 275 employees, people are going to look for work elsewhere »explains Karine Leclerc, Force Ouvrière union representative and employee of the site for twenty-five years.

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The sugar ferments in large vats to form lysine.
© Guillaume Bernard / Reporterre

Despite the threat, no one really dares to believe in its closure. The State, local authorities, but also a wide range of political figures ranging from local deputy François Ruffin (La France insoumise) to Xavier Bertrand (Les Républicains), president of the Hauts-de-France region, including environmentalists or the communists, agree that the factory must live.

“ Everyone is hand in hand, because it is an issue of national and even European sovereignty. If we lose our know-how, we will be totally dependent on Chinese products to feed our animals. »explains Christophe Ranouille, union delegate CFECGC From the factory.

“ This factory can replace the equivalent of 3.5 million tonnes of soybeans »

“ In Amiens, we produce around 100,000 tonnes of amino acids per year, of which 80 % lysine », explains Nicolas Martin, director responsible for sustainable development issues within the company. Produced by the fermentation of a bacteria thanks to the addition of sugar and collected in powder form, this amino acid is used in the manufacture of food pellets for animals, notably pigs and poultry. Among its more than 300 clients, Metex counts the group LDCthe largest European poultry producer, owner of the Le Gaulois and Père Dodu brands.

“ Amino acids are the building blocks that make up proteinssketches Nicolas Martin. Being able to accurately dose an animal’s diet with protein allows it to limit its emissions. If an animal receives too much protein in its diet, it will excrete it, particularly in its urine. » It is through this means that pig slurry is notably at the origin of the development of green algae in Brittany.

“ This plant also makes it possible to replace the equivalent of 3.5 million tonnes of soya. Or the needs of French breeding », figure Nicolas Martin. By combining research in biotechnology, large-scale production capacity and animal husbandry, Metex is therefore of capital interest for the meat industry. Especially since the company alone covers 15 % to 20 % of European lysine requirements. However, for a little less than ten years, its customers have preferred Chinese lysine.

Chinese prices impossible to follow

Lacking orders since 2019-2020, the Amiens site found itself in overcapacity. “ Meat consumption has been growing in China for several years. In 2015-2016, we started to feel an impact on the European market », continues Nicolas Martin. If a Chinese consumes on average 60 kg of meat per year (compared to around 85 kg for a French person and 100 kg for an American), China still accounts for a third of global meat consumption.

“ Dependence on American soy posed a problem for the Chinese governmentpoints out the director responsible for sustainable development issues. He therefore decided to launch into the production of amino acids, and in particular lysine, to have his protein autonomy. The problem is that their meat consumption has not yet reached the level hoped for by the public authorities. »

The result of this policy is that China today produces more than its market can absorb and exports its surpluses to Europe at particularly low prices, with which Metex cannot match.

“ We are facing unfair competition »

The Chinese recipe for selling less expensively ? Above all, access to a sugar price indexed to its world price, lower than the European cost. “ It’s our raw material, that’s why we are based in Picardy, with beet growers nearby.specifies Nicolas Martin. However, since a reform of the CAP in 2018, we no longer have the right to buy their sugar at the world price. You have to buy it at a European price which is much higher. »

“ We are therefore facing unfair competition »denounces Karine Leclerc, FO. “ The worst thing is that when a food manufacturer buys Chinese lysine, there are no customs duties. »adds his counterpart from the CFECGC.

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The fermentation vats at the Metex factory in Amiens are the largest in Europe.
© Guillaume Bernard / Reporterre

The French State, shareholder of Metex with 30 % via BPIFrance, is well aware of the risk that the disappearance of the site would represent. “ If one day, Chinese meat consumption catches up with their production capacity, they no longer export, and the factory closes, Europe will fall into shortage. »predicts Nicolas Martin.

A greener lysine ?

In addition to the question of sovereignty, the ecological interest of the site also raises questions. Metex has also understood this issue well and has been trying to measure its benefits in this area for several years. “ One kilo of lysine manufactured by us represents approximately 2 kilos of CO2. In China, it’s 10 », assures Nicolas Martin. This observation is particularly linked to the power supply of Chinese factories by coal-fired power stations, compared to 80 % gas and 20 % of electricity for Metex.

There is also the fact that China uses corn glucose, while we use beet sugar. However, beets are much richer in glucose. This helps reduce crop size and fertilizer use »specifies the director responsible for sustainable development issues.

The rest of the production in danger

Thus, the Metex situation illustrates the ecological interest of protectionism. “ What is the point of reducing our emissions? CO2 in France if it is so that another country pollutes five times more for the same production ? »asks Nicolas Martin.

To put an end to its structural problems, Metex is demanding, in the medium term, a change in European rules to combat Chinese dumping, and therefore the establishment of customs duties on lysine imported into Europe.

Especially since the Amiens factory produces other amino acids, particularly useful in pharmacy for the manufacture of Aspégic. “ If we lose lysine, we will no longer be able to produce them financially either. »regrets Nicolas Martin.

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