CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Water pollution from agricultural sources has been a persistent problem in the region of Brittany [Bretagne] since the 1970s. Officially put on the political agenda only in the early 1990s, [1] the issue has since prompted a growing number of public policy responses – in the form of both voluntary-based and binding programmes. In the course of studying these programmes devised to fight agricultural pollution and “restore water quality” [reconquête de la qualité des eaux], I have addressed the impact of this environmental problem on agricultural public policy, and by extension the question of change in public policy, traditionally a major concern in public policy analysis. There are different schools of thought on policy change, including policy learning theory [2] and the rational choice approach. [3] The neocorporatist theories that have long prevailed in the agricultural sector have mostly served to evidence the existence of a phenomenon of inertia in lieu of expected change, emphasizing the influence of agricultural professionals and the close ties some of them have managed to develop with the Ministry of Agriculture. [4] Other particularly fashionable political science theories have described instances of continuity of public policy, emphasizing the role played by institutions – by “institutions”, these authors refer to the standards and the rules of the game that regulate the actions of individuals. [5] In other words, they argue that long-established public policy habits and procedures stand in the way of objectives or devices newly introduced by political actors. Many neo-institutionalist authors stress the tendency of these institutions to foster relative continuity rather than change in public policy. They do admit that some change occurs, but according to them it happens incrementally [6] or it is brutally imposed from the outside. [7] However, other authors argue that it is important to consider continuity and change within institutions together. [8]

2In this article, I follow in the footsteps of the neo-institutionalists by setting out to evidence the ability of institutions to resist pressure to change. I show that this resistance is not primarily the consequence of the mobilization of agricultural interest groups against a reform of the intensive agricultural production system; rather, it is due to the institutions themselves. I demonstrate that local agricultural policies resist the change brought about by water quality restoration measures as a result of the existence of instruments liable to paralyze change. By “instruments” I mean the “technical public policy instruments” defined by Pierre Lascoumes and Patrick Le Galès, i.e., devices, regulation techniques and methods of operation in public policy. [9] According to these authors, “instruments are institutions in the sociological sense[:] a more or less coordinated set of rules and procedures that governs the interactions and behaviors of actors and organizations”. [10]

3I consider instruments as fully-fledged institutions with a view towards building bridges between neo-institutionalist theory and the policy instrumentation approach. I intend, for instance, to discuss the application of some of the concepts used in various strands of neoinstitutionalist thought to the policy instrumentation approach. I will specifically examine the instruments’ cultural footprint in light of the sociological neo-institutionalist view of instruments as first and foremost the expression of a shared worldview. I will also discuss the rational-choice neo-institutionalist view of institutions as facilitators of social exchanges, [11] as well as the historical neo-institutionalist concept of “path dependence” – regarding the latter, this paper will highlight a new rationale of institutional dependence.

4In path dependence theory, the recurring use of norms or institutions is thought to trigger a mechanism of “increasing returns”. [12] Here, I show that dependence can also come from the institutions themselves, and in the case at hand from the instruments used more than from the path taken by the institutions. To sustain my argument, I show that the univocal view of institutions as facilitators of exchanges, tracing a path for public policy that is easier to follow than to avoid, is an erroneous one. I show that dependence on public policy instruments, those specific types of institutions, results from the cumulative effect of the ideological footprint on these instruments, leading to a regulatory imbroglio that ultimately causes a movement of distancing between these instruments and public decision-makers. In the case under study, institutional dependence is actually rooted in complexity, rather than in increasing returns measured in terms of coordination of social interactions.

5First, I will follow the approach of Lascoumes and Le Galès, according to whom “a public policy instrument constitutes a device that is both technical and social, that organizes specific social relations between the state and those it is addressed to, according to the representations and meanings it carries”. [13] In keeping with sociological neo-institutionalism, I show the extent to which these public policy instruments are shaped by ideological representations that have little to do with the new environmental objectives imposed from the outside by new actors in the agricultural field, and are rather informed by the values invested since the 1960s by the promoters of these instruments in departmental [14] agricultural public policy. I demonstrate that despite the external imposition of a new environmental frame of reference in agricultural public policy, the instruments set up to achieve the new environmental objectives are still as indebted, if not more, to the productivist frame of reference [15] that has prevailed in Brittany’s agricultural circles since the 1960s.

6Secondly, I will shed light on a less extensively developed dimension of Lascoumes and Le Galès’s work on policy instrumentation. The authors mention an effect of autonomization of the institutions and instruments created: “as they are used, [instruments] tend to produce original and sometimes unexpected effects”. [16] I provide a concrete illustration of this point in the second and third part of this article. Here, the continuity of public policy is not explained by the influence of the past on the present (historical neo-institutionalism) or the perspective of high costs (of coordination, learning) [17] in the event of a change (rational-choice neo-institutionalism), but instead by the complexity introduced by these instruments and the dependence they create for the decision-makers. In the case discussed, rather than creating a dependence on the path laid out, institutions create dependence on the instruments that map out change and/or stability in public policy.

An inadequate response: the effect of sociological neo-institutionalism on departmental regulation

7In Brittany, new environmental objectives in the agricultural sector and particularly in intensive pig and poultry farming were introduced as a result of several local and European factors. I will mostly focus on the European level here, as the EU has imposed particularly stringent new standards on factory farming since the early 1990s. By way of comparison, over the same period, the pressure of local actors committed to change in agricultural practices has only resulted in the adoption of an incentive-based programme, the national programme for agricultural pollution control [PMPOA, Programme national de maîtrise des pollutions d’origine agricole].

8The EU has been issuing regulation on protection of water resources since the 1970s. In 1991, the “Nitrates directive” [18] established a maximum standard of application of livestock manure on farmland. [19] As for any other directive, member states were left entirely free to choose how they intended to ensure compliance with the new standard. Each of them therefore had to specify a method for managing the colossal surplus of livestock effluent created by this new limit in intensive farming countries.

9Adapting this new, EU-imposed environmental objective to Breton agricultural actors long used to a productivist frame of reference raised a major challenge. In the battery farming system developed from the mid 1960s in Brittany for pig and poultry farming, production does not depend on land availability. The system is said to be intensive because it makes it possible to breed many more animals than the overall surface of farmland effectively available would normally allow. Hence, there is no dependence on the forage and food produced by the land for the animals bred on site. With the modernization of farming, food and forage could now be imported by the breeders, therefore making it possible for regions such as Brittany, where the soil is not very fertile and the land-to-farmer ratio is small, to produce in spite of unfavorable natural conditions. Yet, with the agricultural pollution problem, the physical constraints farmers had tried to escape upstream of the production process now reappeared downstream: the waste from livestock farms cannot be eliminated in acreages too small to absorb it. This is a so-called structural problem, [20] as precisely because of the farming model promoted at regional level, crop fertilization cannot fail to be unbalanced and pollution of water and soil is almost inevitable. [21]

10Central ministerial administrations, working closely with decentralized branches of the Ministry of Agriculture, developed action programmes under the Nitrates directive in which numerous provisions seem superfluous and surprisingly complex, particularly in an area already characterized by great complexity. [22] The methods used to achieve compliance with EU standards are rooted in a solidarity-based approach to the livestock manure problem in France: they decreed and organized solidarity between farmers. The emphasis on solidarity is all the more striking when contrasted to the Dutch system set up in response to similar issues, which remained faithful to a more individual, farm-by-farm approach. [23] A number of public policy instruments such as the “manure application ceiling” [plafond d’épandage] and the “mandatory treatment threshold” [seuil d’obligation de traitement], which I discuss later in this paper, attest to the solidarity-based approach chosen in France. This choice can be explained by the prevalence of ideological schemes that the Ministry of Agriculture departmental office [DDA, Direction départementale agricole] and the majority farmers’ union have come to share over time, and by their close collaboration within the framework of agricultural co-management [cogestion agricole], [24] as we will see. [25]

Institutionalized ideological schemes

11As it established a maximum amount of manure to be applied, the new EU regulation created a surplus of livestock effluent no longer suitable for application on farmland in the Côtesd’Armor; it became necessary to come up with a way of absorbing the surplus. Farming authorities and the majority farmers’ union quickly settled on the solution of treatment. [26] This curative technological option then seemed to be the only way to preserve the region’s intensive production system. Other solutions for disposing of surplus manure exist, such as applying it on farmland owned by deficit third parties, as they constitute a potential fertilizer for crop growth, or transferring it outside of surplus areas. However, few farms lack effluent in the Côtes-d’Armor; as we have seen, this is precisely why the majority farmers’ union together with the agricultural cooperatives opted for a productivist system. Transferring surplus manure meant transporting colossal quantities over great distances, which was not viable.

12As they chose to dispose of surplus only downstream of the production process, the agricultural co-managers found themselves at odds with both environmental organizations and the Confédération paysanne farmers’ union. The former called for measures aimed at preventing pollution at source, [27] while the latter criticized the majority farmers’ union for promoting a model that destroys agricultural jobs and harms the environment.

13For the agricultural coalition, [28] the solution of treatment came with the advantage of not calling intensive farming into question. But it also had a major flaw for agricultural actors: it is an extremely expensive one, both in terms of investment in treatment facilities and in terms of running costs. The profit margin per unit is extremely low in intensive farming; this is precisely why breeders try to increase production volumes, in order to achieve a sufficient overall profit margin. As market prices of pork and poultry are traditionally low, the intensive production strategy is based on constant efforts to lower production costs. Setting up treatment facilities was obviously going to increase costs. To address this problem, the coalition decided to use public subsidies from water boards [Agences de l’eau] and local authorities (General and regional councils) to reduce costs when buying the treatment facility. Additionally, as running costs are known to decrease as the quantity of effluent processed increases, a few large-scale treatment facility projects were developed, for instance in Milizac (Finistère) in the early 2000s. However, they faced hostility from local residents, supported by the environmental organizations present in the region, who were against treatment as it did not address the issue at source. These projects thus never saw the light of day. The more likely solution in the mid 2000s consisted in opening individual treatment facilities, creating a huge financial burden likely to affect first and foremost the smaller breeders, those intensive farmers with a livestock population insufficient to make a substantial profit. [29]

14It is worth noting at this stage that in the 1990s, in parts of Brittany including the Côtes-d’Armor, there was a long-established consensus on a social discourse shared by the agricultural unions, including the leading union Fédération départementale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FDSEA) and the Confédération paysanne, and by the decentralized services of the Ministry of Agriculture. Though more right-wing and economically more liberal, the leading union also subscribed to this consensus. Hence, for instance, the local FDSEA branch partly defended the necessity of keeping as many farmers as possible in activity, a discourse more traditionally promoted by the more left-wing Confédération paysanne union. [30] The departmental agricultural policy of the local FDSEA was far more moderate than in neighboring Finistère, for instance, where the FDSEA encouraged the development of intensive farming by authorizing the creation of much bigger livestock farms than in the Côtes-d’Armor. [31] The Côtes-d’Armor FDSEA wanted to establish safeguards against excessively intensive farming, with the aim of protecting small and medium-sized farms from the threat posed to them by the choice of treating surplus manure. DDA decision-makers agreed with that approach and supported the plan devised by the local FDSEA, as I will now show.

An interventionist plan

15In order to save small and medium-sized farms from bankruptcy as a result of the costs of surplus manure treatment, in the 1990s the local FDSEA devised a plan that allowed the smaller farms to apply surplus manure on farmland belonging to third parties, thereby exonerating them from investing in an individual treatment facility. The solution of treatment was to apply chiefly to the bigger intensive farms: according to the leading union, they had more financial resources to invest in facilities and absorb running costs with higher production volumes. The FDSEA’s policy thus discriminated between small farms, given the possibility of applying surplus manure, and the bigger husbandries, forced to take on the extra cost of treatment.

16By virtue of this discriminatory policy, it was necessary to prevent the bigger farms from acquiring land available for manure application in the department, as it was obviously also in their economic interest to apply surplus manure on land as opposed to investing in costly infrastructure. In this respect, the FDSEA plan fit within a very interventionist land policy set up jointly with the DDA, which provided that all land transactions in the department should be closely monitored by the departmental committee for agricultural orientation [CDOA, commission départementale d’orientation agricole], a local decision-making body in which the FDSEA, as the main professional organization, manages departmental agricultural policy jointly with administrative representatives. Before they are authorized, these land transactions (leases, sales, successions) must first be offered to the smaller farms, in order to support their development efforts as they face bigger farms also eager to acquire as much land as possible. [32]

17The FDSEA considered setting up a mutualist system to facilitate land leases between deficit extensive farms – generally cattle farms – and small surplus-producing intensive farms. [33] Larger intensive farms were on the other hand encouraged to show solidarity with their peers by treating their surplus. However, the Côtes-d’Armor FDSEA did not succeed in convincing other Breton FDSEA branches that their plan was a good one. Even mobilizing wide internal support proved difficult, as professional organizations such as producers’ groups and agricultural cooperatives, usually gathered under the deceptively unifying term of “the agricultural profession” [la profession agricole] by the majority farmers’ union, were very reluctant to commit to the fight against agricultural pollution and surplus livestock manure. [34] When, in 1996, central ministerial directorates urged the DDA to implement the Nitrates directive issued almost five years back more efficiently, the Côtes-d’Armor FDSEA began disengaging from the process. Due to internal rifts within the majority coalition, the majority farmers’ union, although they had been very active on agricultural pollution since the 1980s, now refused to work together with their historical DDA partners. Yet, the Côtes-d’Armor DDA retained the plan devised by the local FDSEA, in a typical illustration of the sharing of ideas and solutions perceived as legitimate between partners in departmental co-management.

A discriminatory device

18The FDSEA now claimed to oppose the implementation of a plan it had originally conceived as voluntary-based, transformed by the DDA into a set of binding regulations. [35]As it was also eager to refrain from speeding up the already ongoing process of the disappearance of small farms as ever-more intensive methods of production were being used, the DDA devised a particularly interventionist plan. This amount of interference was all the more surprising as the problem and therefore its solutions appeared particularly sensitive from the start. [36] The DDA thus took the risk of further increasing their complexity. This approach received support from the head offices of the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment, since the Voynet-Le Pensec circular adopted in 1998, which presents the French plan for implementing the Nitrates directive, endorsed the administrative categories created locally. [37] On agricultural pollution in general, Breton departments, and particularly the Côtes-d’Armor DDA, were forerunners of national policy – first because Brittany was the first region to face this problem in the 1980s, and second because the then Minister of Agriculture in the Jospin cabinet, Louis Le Pensec, was a former socialist Breton MP. [38] Le Pensec had also served as vice-president of the Finistère General Council when the Confédération paysanne was for the first time at the helm of the departmental Chamber of Agriculture: he was also convinced of the need to defend small livestock farms.

19Three more years passed before the second round of prefectoral bylaws on the implementation of the Nitrates directive were issued and the plan was finally made operational. Until then, only polluted areas ( “structural surplus areas” – in French zones d’excédents structurels) had been identified; no farms had been singled out. With the 2001 bylaws, the DDA now faced the task of determining who among the population of surplus-producing farmers was going to be targeted. The DDA did not actually stop there and went as far as to specify categories among those farmers: those eligible for manure application and those forced to invest in a treatment facility. To calibrate this plan, they adopted a global approach by structural surplus area. First, at departmental level, they calculated the global amount of surplus to absorb for surplus-producing farms [39] and the surface of land potentially available for manure application in deficit farms. On that basis, they determined what they called a “manure application ceiling” [plafond d’épandage] for each structural surplus area in the department (in the form of a maximum number of hectares made available to a farm for manure application) and a “mandatory treatment threshold” [seuil d’obligation de traitement] (once the threshold has been reached, the effluent that cannot be applied within the manure application ceiling will have to be treated). With the system put in place, as soon as a surplus-producing farm reaches a certain level of effluent production, it automatically falls into the category of mandatory treatment and becomes ineligible for application on farmland owned by deficit third parties. Conversely, other surplus-producing farms whose production levels remain under that threshold are allowed to apply manure on land loaned by third parties. The DDA’s ambition here is to prevent bigger farms from having massive recourse to land application, when they are perceived as the most financially sound and therefore the most suitable candidates for investment in treatment.

20Ultimately, this plan seems unnecessarily complex in many respects, because it is very interventionist and partly discriminatory, without this discrimination being related to the environmental issue at hand. The plan can be better understood if we consider its strong social dimension, beyond the environmental aspect. It also attests to the state of tension pertaining to land access issues, always a sensitive subject in the Côtes-d’Armor department. Long-established positions shared by the administration and the majority farmers’ union sometimes even led public authorities to let the environmental situation worsen for social reasons.

Letting the environmental situation worsen for social reasons: the creation of the “Young farmers” (JA), “Economically insufficiently sized farms” (EDEI) and “JA-EDEI allowance” categories

21In January 1998, the Voynet-Le Pensec circular confirmed the decision taken by Corinne Lepage, Minister of Ecology, to prohibit building or expanding livestock farms in structural surplus areas, and gave it a more secure legal footing. Yet, in addition to the dispensation granted to Young farmers [JA, Jeunes agriculteurs] already mentioned in letters to Breton prefects signed by Lepage, [40] it introduced a new dispensation for a category named “economically insufficiently sized farms” [EDEI, exploitations de dimension économique insuffisante]. [41] In the same spirit, an “allowance” was created to let farms perceived to be among the most economically fragile to carry on growing, even though the increase of livestock populations had been supposedly temporarily suspended for all farms by a 1996 Lepage decision. An ex-head of the Côtes-d’Armor veterinary service recalls the adoption of this allowance and of the JA-EDEI exception:


“Initially, this plan was announced as an environment and public health initiative – ‘water quality’, and the Voynet-Le Pensec circular told us ‘expanding in a structural surplus area is forbidden’ [but still, it added:] ‘I ask local authorities to grant JA and EDEI in structural surplus areas a nitrate allowance [a possibility of additional production]’, […] they’ve got the right to expand in structural surplus areas. So you bring economic and social aspects […] into a regulation that was initially only environmental. So there you have it, complete confusion. It does give some breathing room, but then again it means that the overstrained structural surplus areas can actually stand to take in a little more effluent from people who supposedly pollute less than others, except they actually don’t because they’ve also opted for an intensive production system and they’re still going to be allowed to add more surplus effluent on top of that. How does that make sense environmentally? The absorption hadn’t even started yet. Then the decision makers thought they’d come up with a virtual allowance: ‘In each canton, we’re going to define an allowance and the JA-EDEI who’ll want to come there will draw from that virtual allowance.’ […] So as it turns out, the allowance and the absorption were unrelated.” [42], [43]

23In effect, at a point when the absorption of surplus manure had yet to begin, the allowance worsened the surplus and the pollution it created.

24In dealing with the surplus livestock manure problem, public decision-makers mostly recycled ideological patterns. Relying on an approach deemed legitimate, action programmes were partly aimed at protecting smaller farms from the threat of bankruptcy that came with the chosen technological solution to the issue. The hypothesis of sociological neo-institutionalism fits here: over years of repeated interactions within the framework of departmental co-management, public authorities have come to share values with local agricultural unions. These shared values explain the distinctive features of the public policy instruments implemented to address the surplus manure issue.

Instruments and their negative side effects

25These instruments however soon got out of hand and beyond the control of public decision-makers. The multiple provisions that had been intentionally and carefully introduced ended up creating a bureaucratic labyrinth, producing numerous negative side effects that undermined the balance of the regulation, as we will see. Here I wish to emphasize an aspect that strongly conflicts with the utilitarian explanation of path dependence through a mechanism of “increasing returns”. In path dependence theory, institutions endure because they facilitate coordination and produce learning effects in social interactions. The case under study appears to contradict this: here, instruments – institutions – do not necessarily facilitate coordination between actors or allow them to grasp the complexity of the situation. Quite the opposite in fact: they make things more complex and reduce the possibilities for actors to learn change.

The proliferation of administrative categories

26Early in the process, in addition to the first batch of instruments set up to ensure the implementation of the new EU standards, a second batch of measures and administrative categories emerged, aimed either at facilitating enforcement technically or at addressing specific situations (see Box 1). Such negotiations frequently occur in the agricultural sector, where interactions are often very technical. The implementation of agricultural public policy is likewise routinely negotiated, as evidenced by the implementation process of the 1993 PMPOA programme. [44] However, with these new categories, the entire programme began to unravel, a process which was both simultaneous with implementation and was driven from the bottom up. [45] Simultaneous with implementation because these sub-categories were nothing new; they had been conceived during the implementation of the Nitrates directive action programmes, within the framework of what may be termed the “social productivist” paradigm. Over time, however, these subcategories were reinterpreted and used as resources by those who opposed the environmental objectives to be achieved in agricultural policy. This unraveling was partly caused by the farmers, who were themselves encouraged by the economic organizations (producer groups and cooperatives), and partly by representatives of the majority farmers’ union, also subject to pressure from the same economic organizations. [46] And, second, a bottom-up process because public policy objectives were called into question in the settings or practical uses of public policy instruments, as the first instruments for the implementation of the Nitrates directive were stripped of their substance and the balance of the entire plan was threatened. [47] In short, thanks to these sub-categories, more and more farmers were ultimately allowed to apply increasingly large volumes of animal manure rather than treat it.

27Additionally, the authorities took many risks in calibrating their plan: first, it was uncertain whether several of the measures adopted were actually legal; second, the DDA posited a number of rather adventurous hypotheses, particularly regarding the availability of land for manure application in deficit farms. Indeed, there was no guarantee whatsoever that cattle farms would agree to freely loan land to surplus-producing farms for manure application; the agricultural world is characterized by feuds which are often longstanding and deep-rooted. On a more practical level, farmers often choose chemical fertilizers over livestock effluent, because the latter’s efficiency is more uncertain and harder to gauge. In order to anticipate possible reluctances from cattle farmers, the DDA posited an entirely arbitrary hypothesis on the effective availability of cattle farming land. [48] When they calculated manure management objectives for the department, at no point did the authorities consult with deficit farmers on whether they would agree to loan land to surplus-producing third parties. The plan announced that land would be pooled in this manner, but provided no guarantee that this would actually happen. Moreover, it is in practice nearly impossible to supervise this type of land loaning system, as the authorities do not monitor such agreements between farmers. [49]

28The plan set up by the authorities was therefore undermined from all sides, with farmers trying to undo it at all levels, including if necessary by making use of the JA-EDEI dispensations to keep increasing production, [50] even when they had not addressed the surplus manure issue. [51] Ultimately, with the cumulative effect of the overly optimistic calculations regarding land availability and of the multiple dispensations granted, failure to achieve EU objectives became a real risk, as surplus-producing farmers were keen to spread manure rather than treat it, but the overall land available was insufficient. Above all, the proliferation of administrative categories made the regulatory system much too complex, to the extent that some public-sector managers admit that they lost track of its balance and of its guiding principles.


“We went into too great detail in the negotiations. Now we’re stuck, all we do is talk about dispensations. […] There’s a pretty large body of regulation […] and then there’s also the doctrine on applying the law to situations that aren’t covered by the legal texts. And this doctrine keeps changing very quickly, sometimes we lose track of the guiding principles. Sometimes we can’t even give an opinion on a request for dispensation, we don’t know where we stand anymore […].” [52]

Box 1. The bottom-up undoing of the manure management plan

Two sub-categories became particularly important: the “manure application sub-ceiling” [sous-plafond d’épandage] and the “removal of the ceiling” [déplafonnement]. As they began implementing the surplus manure management objectives, departmental public authorities quickly found that some areas included only a few big livestock farms and a majority of so-called medium-sized farms. In these areas, the mandatory treatment threshold was therefore set at a relatively low level, which affected farms with lower income than what had originally been planned. In these areas especially, they were strongly pressured into offering opportunities not to treat all of the surplus manure and have part of it applied on land owned by third parties. As a result, even though they were in the mandatory treatment threshold category, some surplus-producing farmers benefited from a “manure application sub-ceiling”. In theory, this “sub-ceiling” category had been established for surplus-producing farmers who wanted to apply the byproducts of their manure treatment on land. [53] In practice, however, many farmers used this “sub-ceiling” to apply their untreated effluent on land. In 2005, the provision limiting the sub-ceiling to byproducts of treatment was scrapped from the regulation. [54] This new development was at odds with the spirit of the plan conceived by public authorities, the original point being that surplus-producing farmers must either apply surplus manure on land owned by third parties or process it in a facility. Yet, the rules were stretched in many other cases; soon, the sub-ceiling was no longer enough and a “removal of the ceiling” category was introduced: legally used land was excluded from the manure application ceiling. [55] This was a breach of the principle of “inclusion of legally used land in the manure application ceiling”, which had originally been invented by the DDA, as it sought to avoid situations where big surplus producers owning vast areas of land could entirely or partly escape mandatory treatment in this manner. Indeed, in this system, the only opportunity for manure application given to surplus-producing farms having reached the mandatory treatment threshold was, as the jargon goes, “application on legally used land after treatment” [retour sur les terres propres après traitement]. This meant that these farmers were allowed to apply manure on land that they legally used and treat the rest – as it was obviously legally difficult for the DDA to restrain these big surplus producers on their own land. This is nevertheless precisely what they tried to do by using this principle of inclusion as a method of calculation whereby surplus-producing farms automatically fell into the “mandatory treatment” category. Admittedly, farmers could still legally apply manure on their legally used land. But for the authorities, the point of this provision was to encourage these farmers to treat as much effluent as possible considering they were compelled to invest in a treatment facility anyway. In theory, the “removal of the ceiling” is granted on a case-by-case basis by the authorities. In practice, no request can be turned down because the rules initially imposed by the DDA in the manure treatment regulation are too weak legally: the legality of the principle of “inclusion of legally used land in the manure application ceiling” is questionable, and many lawyers working with producer groups are set to file complaints as soon as a negative ruling is given. [56]

The impossibility of learning policy change

30Undoubtedly, the new regulation on manure management provided an incentive for farmers to adopt more environment-friendly practices. Yet, these adjustments failed to create a momentum leading to a genuine dynamic of change in local agricultural policy; [57] the productivist paradigm remained just as prevalent. The negative dynamic of the public policy instruments thwarted opportunities for learning new environmental objectives, both for the farmers and for the authorities. Looking closely at these public policy instruments, it is possible to identify such opportunities, and, crucially, the roadblocks on the path towards a paradigm shift.

A mathematical rationale to address an ecological issue

31The manure management regulation plan followed a mathematical approach to the manure problem. The mandatory amounts of manure to absorb for each surplus-producing farm were calculated on the basis of the units of nitrogen produced, of the quantity of nitrogen emitted, and of the amount that can be potentially applied on land given the provisions of the regulation. The natural conditions for land application of manure were certainly not taken into account. This “mathematical” rationale can be partly explained by the broader approach adopted by the DDA on the Nitrates regulation, aiming at discriminating between so-called small and big producers, which implies a focus on livestock production rather than on the pollution it generates. [58]

32As it followed this mathematical rationale, the administration processed individual cases on a purely bureaucratic basis. The agronomic assessments of farmlands were not taken into account; only compliance with authorized levels was considered. [59] Some inspection reports criticized the interventionism of agricultural authorities, urging them to “refocus their activity on the formulation of an opinion on the environmental impact of a project”, stressing that as far as water quality restoration goes, it is “not their place to get involved in the economic and social debate; that is up to the departmental committee for agricultural orientation, which decides on the basis of other criteria”. [60]

33The continued implementation of such a formalist approach can partly be explained by the fact that the Departmental Office of Veterinary Services [DDSV, Direction départementale des services vétérinaires] is entrusted with much of the processing of the livestock farms’ compliance files. [61] The veterinary services, in charge of implementing the Nitrates regulation alongside the DDA, [62] are traditionally characterized by their lack of agronomic knowledge. These agents attend the occasional update training session, but the extreme complexity of the regulations merely exacerbates their lack of understanding. As a result, the administrative processes can only follow a strictly formal rationale; agents check individual situations for compliance but have no say on the environmental impact of the decisions. A DDSV deputy head of service recalls the sheer confusion among heads of service as they took up their duties, which says a lot about how the veterinary services processed the files:


“We had heads of service that were often on the verge of a nervous breakdown because they had too much work and the Ministries kept calling to get stats, updated numbers on manure management […] that they had to give within a couple of days, etc. […] There’s a lot of turnover for DDSV heads of service. When they come in, they have no idea of the calculations we make […] I always tell them you don’t need to understand, you just have to apply the methods of calculation you’re being given. Then you understand how it works over time, with experience. But at first, all you need to know is that this number shouldn’t be higher than that number, that’s all there is to check.” [63]

35The same deputy head of service nevertheless admits that even the motivations of the decisions made by more experienced staff can be quite unclear:


“We have [preparatory meetings] with the DDA because there’s always issues, sometimes we sign things but some time later we can’t even remember why […].” [64]

37This mathematical rationale, a by product of the extreme regulatory complexity of the field, made it entirely impossible for both civil servants and farmers to learn the environmental approach. This was made worse by the fact that no adequate spatial approach to the issue has prevailed. The proliferation of zones of action, which accumulate and frequently have no ecological rationale, merely reinforce the impression that an approach based on numerical norms is favored.

Gaps in the spatial approach to the problem

38Manure management regulation operates over several types of spatial subdivisions, such as the cantons for the mandatory Nitrate programmes and catchment areas for the numerous associated voluntary-based programmes (see Box 2). All of these spatial frameworks coexist and sometimes overlap with no integration whatsoever between them. They come with often different regulatory requirements and contractual provisions, sometimes ignored at other local levels. For instance, the local authorities did not consider the SAGE plan to be binding for a long time. [65]

39Moreover, the instruments of information and control used to deal with the surplus manure management issue have very little in the way of an environmental dimension. Agricultural authorities were reluctant to conceive spatial tools to address the surplus manure problem: for instance, no mapping software exists to check for abnormalities in land application plans (such as instances of the same land being loaned several times to different surplus-producing farms).

40Overall, then, the choice of a mathematical, numbers-oriented approach over a geographical or ecological one in dealing with the manure management issue compromises the learning of change and encourages excessive formalism in the administrative processing of files. In the 1980s, environmental organizations already criticized “the lack of an overarching policy: each file is handled separately without ever being considered within the local context”; [66] they denounced “the case-by-case granting of authorizations for new industrial livestock farms, with no overall assessment of the situation at catchment area level”. [67] As of 2007, none of this had changed.

Box 2. Uncoordinated zoning patterns

The canton (a sub-departmental administrative district) is the geographical unit of reference for the new category introduced with the implementation of the Nitrates directive: “structural surplus areas” [zones d’excédents structurels]. [68] However, it did not fit with the categories commonly used by agricultural authorities and the veterinary services, which until then used individual farms as the reference within the framework of ICPE regulation. The reference to the canton prevailed when the choice of a global, solidarity-based policy orientation was made in the calibration of manure management programmes. This choice meant that it was necessary to collect information not only on surplus-producing farms – listed individually in the existing register on regulated installations – but also on deficit farms (including cattle farms) that did not fall under the scope of ICPE regulation. Indeed, within the framework of French policy, it was necessary to assess not only the individual surplus production, but also the number of hectares of land potentially available for manure application in deficit farms. This information was only available at canton level, updated roughly every ten years with the new general agricultural census. [69] Though it lacked environmental relevance and provided incomplete information, [70] the canton scale was eventually chosen by public authorities for these reasons.
The “structural surplus areas” (ZES) are administrative zones, defined to meet a need for very specific information, but constrained by the lack of availability of non-global numbers. In addition to these ZES, the agricultural authorities created “complementary action areas” [ZAC, zones d’action complémentaire] in catchment areas experiencing drinking water production problems. They are in effect enhanced ZES, with reinforced restrictions due to extremely high pollution levels. A third type of area also exists, the “reinforced action areas” [ZAR, zones d’action renforcées] in catchment areas affected by EU litigation on the implementation of the 1975 surface fresh water directive. [71] While ZES, ZAC and ZAR all use the canton as a yardstick, they also coexist with other areas using other reference points. This goes for the SAGE and SDAGE categories [72] established after the 1992 Water Act, which use catchment areas as reference points. [73] While the catchment area is an ecologically relevant yardstick, it is not immune to the proliferation of local categories: indeed, another category of catchment area, specific to Brittany, was created as part of the Brittany Pure Water plan [BEP, Bretagne Eau Pure] – the BEP catchment area (smaller than the SAGE/SDAGE catchment areas). Lastly, there are perimeters for the protection of drinking water abstraction points, divided into three types of areas: “immediate”, “close” and “remote”.

41Another dimension similarly demonstrates the impossibility of learning environmental change: the piecemeal management of issues.

The piecemeal management of issues: a non-integrated approach to intensive farming-related environmental issues

42One example provides a perfect illustration of this lack of integration in the general handling of environmental issues by agricultural authorities: how the phosphorus issue was put on the agenda by environmental organizations in the mid 2000s. Breton environmental organizations had been addressing the phosphorus problem since the early 2000s. In agronomical terms, the problem was nothing new – just like nitrogen compounds, it was part of the principle of balanced fertilization officially recognized by agricultural authorities in the 1976 law on regulated installations for the Protection of the Environment (ICPE), and DDA staff were perfectly aware of it. Yet, the imposition of the new phosphorus issue took the DDA by surprise. In late 2005, when it was forced to redefine manure application standards to take phosphorus into consideration, the DDA ended up recanting in some cases. Indeed, the manure treatment facilities that had been officially certified up to that point within the framework of Nitrates directive implementation were only conceived to process surplus nitrogen. [74] No measures had been taken to treat phosphorus in manure. [75] The authorities were now placed in the embarrassing situation of explaining to farming professionals, at the risk of discrediting themselves, that the treatment facilities certified in the early 2000s no longer allowed their owners to comply with regulations. As a result, farmers who were until then considered as compliant had to contend with new expenses to meet the requirements of the updated regulations. [76]

43The clear lack of preparation of DDA services on the phosphorus issue reflects a broader tendency to adopt a piecemeal management of issues, which in itself attests to the failure of the agricultural coalition members to question and adjust their methods of action. They remained mostly unreceptive to the global environmental problems raised by intensive farming practices, and continued to address issues on a separate, case-by-case basis, according to technical and sectoral rationales.

Understanding (the lack of) change through the analysis of instruments

44As environmental organizations keep pointing out the absence of results or improvements in terms of water pollution by nitrates, there has been more and more pressure to come up with a new way of addressing the problem. Ever the outsiders of manure management policy, these organizations have tirelessly used all the resources available to them to further their cause. This includes numerous legal appeals, both at national and EU level. In one of these cases, brought in 1992, the European Court of Justice ruled against the French government in March 2001 and June 2007. The European Commission had opened infringement proceedings for failure to comply with a legal provision of the 1975 Surface Water directive. [77] Since the Maastricht Treaty, the Commission was entitled to impose financial sanctions to pressure France into complying with the law as quickly as possible. This threat was taken very seriously at the highest levels of French government, as the Commission had carried out similar threats for the first time in July 2005 in the so-called “undersized fish” case, which cost France 77 million euros overall. Since that case, the Secretariat General for European Affairs, reporting directly to the Prime Minister’s office, monitored all EU litigation where article 228 of the Maastricht Treaty could apply. [78] Other Ministries were also on their guard, since for various reasons, the Ministries of Transport, Defense and Justice, among others, had to share the burden of the fine for authorizing the catching and selling of undersized fish with the Ministry of Agriculture – a lump sum of 20 million euros and a daily penalty payment of 316 000 euros. In the “surface water” case, the penalty payment was lower – 117 000 euros daily – but even the most optimistic studies forecast that compliance with EU standards in problematic catchment areas will not be achieved before 2015. [79] Understandably, then, the other Ministries pressured the Ministry of Agriculture into acting quickly. Yet, while it was now necessary to devise an emergency plan at national level to convince the Commission not to use financial sanctions, the departmental plan remained relatively stable even though it had yet to produce any tangible effects on nitrate concentrations in watercourses – which was problematic in the light of the Surface Water directive. To respond to European Commission pressure, instead of reworking a plan that had proved impractical, regional authorities made it even more complex by creating yet another new administrative category – “catchment areas targeted by EU litigation” [bassins versants en contentieux européen] – to be monitored more closely, with financial incentives for farmers to shift towards extensive or organic production. The French plan also included manure application restrictions more stringent than those set out by the Nitrates directive, [80] but only in the four catchment areas deemed the most problematic, failing to anticipate likely similar trends in other catchment areas. The authorities also deliberately ignored the fact that many of the studies they had commissioned had expressed skepticism regarding the efficiency of the plan. [81] Ultimately, these measures were merely added on top of the existing manure management plan, which remained intact despite its failure to produce results.

45Here, I argue that this continuity in policy is not the result of path dependence as described by historical neo-institutionalists. In the case under study, continuity in policy is not due to the fact that policy settings inherited from the past are perceived as more adequate or less costly. Rather than path dependence, the manure management case is one where dependence on instruments prevails. This dependence does not exist because these instruments make public policy implementation more practical for the authorities. As we have seen, no mechanism of “increasing returns” can be observed here, but rather the contrary. Conversely, it is because they make public policy more complex, as opposed to easier, that these instruments become obligatory passage points of sorts; they function as anchors in the chaotic environment they have contributed to create or foster. In other words, I argue, as an alternative to historical neo-institutionalism and its path dependence concept, that the authorities stick with these instruments in order to contain complexity rather than because they simplify matters in the first place. Regarding the issue of water pollution from agricultural sources, they steer a short-sighted course, sticking to the instruments as much as possible, without the latter – due to their very complexity – making it possible for them to easily follow an existing path.

46This dependence on instruments becomes clear when we observe the way the majority agricultural coalition has become increasingly looser and even fragmented over time. [82] I argue that the stability of Côtes-d’Armor policy cannot be explained by the maintenance of shared cognitive frames within the agricultural coalition. First, the DDA recruited new staff members whose backgrounds were less close to those of agricultural professionals. The civil servants in charge of the first manure management programmes came from Brittany and were trained at the School for agronomic studies in the regional capital Rennes [ENSA, École nationale supérieure d’agronomie]. But as of 2003, the new head of service in charge of agricultural regulation had no local ties, and had trained at the Paris-based Ecole Polytechnique and National school of rural water and forestry engineering [ENGREF, Ecole nationale du génie rural, des eaux et des forêts]. He had fewer ties to the agricultural world than his predecessors. Additionally, members of the majority coalition became increasingly distant over time, as the types of exchanges between members of the administration and members of the majority farmers’ union changed: in the 2000s, there was a gradual shift from technical and generally consensual consultations towards more negotiation. [83] Over the same period, discussion was relocated from the departmental level, which used to be the traditional setting of agricultural co-management, to the regional level with the creation of the MIRE [84] in February 2001, reporting to the Secretariat General for Regional Affairs, i.e., the regional prefecture.

47As a result of these changes, interactions between the majority agricultural organizations and the agricultural authorities became more politicized. Agricultural representatives had no qualms about enlisting local and national political supporters to pressure their ex-partners in the DDA. They now influenced public policy in a political manner, using local MPs to reach the prefect and his decentralized head of service, whereas under the technocratic decision-making system that prevailed from the 1960s in the agricultural sector, influence tended to work the other way around, from the director of the DDA, an unfailing ally of the majority farmers’ union, to the prefect, the arbiter and mediator on local interests. The ideological proximity of the agricultural coalition members, which explained the recourse to the specific instruments of the departmental manure management plan, cannot explain their stability over time.

48The challenges faced by lobbying operations of the majority farmers’ union are another illustration of the constraint exerted by the instruments themselves. At first sight, this lobbying appears to have paid off at local level, as the prefect granted several requests made by agricultural economic actors. In particular, agricultural cooperatives had been eager to restructure livestock farms for a long time, by allowing farms to expand by purchasing other existing farms. This was in theory impossible since the 1990s, as extending livestock farms was forbidden in surplus areas. Yet, the authorities ended up conceding this possibility in 2005, considering it did not affect global production volumes at departmental level. [85] As it led to further development of intensive farming and a concomitant decrease in the number of active farmers, environmental organizations and the Confédération paysanne have always opposed this measure. [86] In their own words, they denounced, first, the breakneck quest for productivity, and second, the risk of further worsening the environmental situation of the catchment areas affected by this change – the catchment area being a more relevant unit than the department to assess the consequences of a restructuring. The adoption of this measure ultimately led these two interest groups to disengage from the debate on regional agricultural policy reform launched in the early 2000s with the “Charter for sustainable agriculture in Brittany” [Charte pour une agriculture pérenne en Bretagne]. Yet, if the regional prefecture appears ready to make major concessions to regional economic interests, this does not mean that the authorities will grant any kind of request from the majority farmers’ union. Due to the features of the instruments in place, their lobbying has limitations. We may for instance consider the fact that during several years, the majority farmers’ union asked for a revision of manure management objectives, on the legitimate grounds that numerous poultry and cattle farms had gone out of business as a result of multiple economic crises since the early 2000s, when the manure management objectives were established. Nevertheless, with the aim of containing the complexity of the regulation, the regional prefecture has always rejected this request; the objectives had to remain intact. In a context of relative uncertainty on the balance of the manure management plan, these objectives are somewhat understandably held as non-amendable.

49Ultimately, I have endeavored to show the unexpected consequences of the use of instruments on public policy and the way instruments become emancipated from their producers in practice, in an illustration of the specific dynamic of policy instruments evidenced by Lascoumes and Le Galès. According to these two authors, instruments “generate their own effects, beyond the intentions of decision-makers”. [87] Other authors also described as a “ratchet effect” the irreversibility of the choices made and the relative powerlessness of actors towards the instruments. [88]

50* * *

51In this article, I have addressed the concept of change in agricultural public policy in the Côtes-d’Armor department. I have shown that despite the introduction of new environmental standards and objectives, particularly by the EU, all perspectives for change are nipped in the bud by the enduring traditional ideological schemes deriving from the productivist paradigm that has prevailed since the 1960s, which inform the public policy instruments that are supposed to help achieve these objectives. More specifically, the negative side effects of these instruments in their practical use attest to their ability to neutralize opportunities for change and in the process strip the new objectives of their substance, including when the persistence of the environmental problem led the agricultural coalition to become more fragmented over time.

52Within a neo-institutionalist perspective, I have focused more closely on the study of public policy instrumentation first, to show the impact of ideological schemes, as instruments are not axiologically neutral, “on the contrary […] they are fueled by one interpretation of the social and by precise notions of the mode of regulation envisaged”; [89] second, to gauge the progressive emancipation of these instruments from the sociological institutions to which they were initially supposed to be faithful. In this sense, this article is a concrete illustration of Lascoumes’ claim that instruments sometimes end up beyond the control of actors, who become prisoners and somehow dependent on the tools they have forged.

53Although the path dependence phenomenon is usually explained in terms of a utilitarian rationale of “increasing returns”, [90] I have suggested an alternative interpretation of this dependence. The instruments of information used and the administrative categories consequently created induced a very specific public policy course which, quite strikingly, instead of simplifying matters, brought even more uncertainty on an agronomic issue that was very complex to begin with.

54While the utilitarian interpretation, in line with Arthur, allows for “a potential path inefficiency – in the long-run, the outcome that becomes locked in may generate lower pay-offs than an alternative solution would have”, [91] according to Arthur increasing return mechanisms are mainly triggered by learning effects and coordination effects. In the case under study here, we have observed that there were no learning effects but instead much confusion surrounding these institutions. The endurance of institutions due to the high cost of change described in the utilitarian theory therefore cannot be explained by increasing returns – on the contrary, it would be more appropriate to speak of decreasing returns here.

55In the second to last section of this article, I have shown that alternative interpretations from historical sociology are not more convincing: [92] factors related to the legitimacy of the instruments, to the power struggles around them or to their functionality cannot in effect account for the endurance of institutions. In the case presented here, the staying power of the instruments can instead be better explained by the role they play in keeping the complexity of the manure management programme in check, for lack of ways to simplify it even partly. Insofar as policy instruments have themselves strongly contributed to increasing complexity, they constitute the keystone of the entire manure management programme; as such, closely studying them is our best chance to understand dynamics of change and/or continuity in public policy. Ultimately, in an effort to complement landmark research by Hall [93] and Jobert [94] on the role of instruments in public policy change, I have emphasized through this case study the role of instruments as an explanatory variable of inertia in public policy.


  • [1]
    At national level, this dates back to then Minister of Environment Brice Lalonde’s statements on “polluting farmers” [agriculteurs-pollueurs] at a 20 February 1990 press conference, during the Paris International Agricultural Show.
  • [2]
    Hugh Heclo, Modern Social Politics in Britain and Sweden. From Relief to Income Maintenance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).
  • [3]
    Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1957). For a French-language presentation of current debates on rational-choice theories, see Mathias Delori, Delphine Deschaux-Beaume, Sabine Saurugger (eds), Le choix rationnel en science politique. Débats critiques (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009).
  • [4]
    Carsten Daugbjerg, Policy Networks under Pressure. Pollution Control, Policy Reform and Power of Farmers (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998). On agricultural neocorporatism, see also John Keeler, Politics of Neocorporatism in France. Farmers, the State and Agricultural Policy-Making in the Fifth Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), and the critique by Pepper Culpepper, “Organisational competition and the neo-corporatist fallacy in French agriculture”, West European Politics, 16, 1993, 295-315.
  • [5]
    Douglas North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).Online
  • [6]
    Charles Lindblom, “The science of muddling through”, Public Administration Review, 19, 1959, 79-88.Online
  • [7]
    Frank Baumgartner, Brian Jones, “Agenda dynamics and policy subsystems”, The Journal of Politics, 53, 1991, 1044-74.Online
  • [8]
    See for instance Kathleen Thelen, “Historical institutionalism in comparative politics”, Annual Review of Political Science, 2, 1999, 369-404.Online
  • [9]
    Pierre Lascoumes, “Les instruments d’action publique, traceurs de changement: l’exemple de la transformation de la politique française de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique (1961-2006)”, Politique et sociétés, 26(2-3), 2007, 73-89 (74). On the policy instrumentation approach, see also the pioneering work of Christopher Hood, The Tools of Government (London: Macmillan, 1983).
  • [10]
    Pierre Lascoumes, Patrick Le Galès (eds), Gouverner par les instruments (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2005), Online
  • [11]
    Insofar as institutions fulfil coordinating functions – see Kathleen Thelen, “Historical institutionalism…”.
  • [12]
    See elaborations on the concepts of “increasing returns” and “self-reinforcing or positive feedback processes” in Paul Pierson, “Increasing returns, path dependence, and the study of politics”, American Political Science Review, 94, 2000, 251-67.Online
  • [13]
    P. Lascoumes, P. Le Galès (eds), Gouverner par les instruments.
  • [14]
    Translator’s note: Here and elsewhere in this paper, “departmental” refers to the French départements (subregional units headed by a prefect).
  • [15]
    On the concept of “frame of reference” [référentiel] in the agricultural sector, see Pierre Muller’s work on the modernizing frame of reference – particularly Le technocrate et le paysan (Paris: Les Éditions ouvrières, 1984). The concept has been criticized both in terms of public policy analysis in general (see Alain Faure, Gilles Pollet, Philippe Warin (eds), La construction du sens dans les politiques publiques (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1995)) and more specifically in terms of agricultural policy analysis (see for instance Claude Servolin, “Les politiques agricoles”, in Madeleine Grawitz, Jean Leca (eds), Traité de science politique (Paris: PUF, vol. 4, 1985), 155-260). Servolin disputes the claim that new elites in agricultural unions played a key role in setting up a new model of agricultural production after World War II by promoting new “images” of the sector and of farming as an occupation. On the contrary, the author argues that this transformation of the agricultural sector was essentially desired by governmental authorities, and that the latter thus sought allies within the agricultural world to impose this unpopular reform on the entire field. Here, I do not subscribe to Muller’s hypothesis of a causal relationship between the promotion of new representations of the world and changes in public policy; I use the term “frame of reference” simply in the sense that actors make sense of reality through a framework of interpretation, a normative and cognitive matrix.
  • [16]
    P. Lascoumes, P. Le Galès (eds), Gouverner par les instruments, 31.
  • [17]
    See Brian Arthur, Increasing Returns and Path Dependence in the Economy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).The author discusses “learning effects”, “coordination effects” and “adaptive expectations”.
  • [18]
    Council Directive 91/676/EEC of 12 December 1991 concerning the protection of watercourses against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources.
  • [19]
    Amounting to 170kg N organic/hectare/year. Water pollution by nitrates is due to runoff of livestock manure either from the farms where it is stored or from the farmlands on which it has been spread to fertilize crops. This effluent is very nitrogen-rich, which may turn into nitrates when washed down to rivers and streams.
  • [20]
    Agricultural authorities speak of a “structural surplus” of livestock manure.
  • [21]
    In this sense, there is much less available leeway to solve environmental issues in intensive farming than in other agricultural sectors where environmental objectives were also introduced. See for instance Matthieu Ansaloni and Ève Fouilleux, “Terroir et protection de l’environnement: un mariage indésirable?”, Politiques et management public, 4, 2008, 3-24.
  • [22]
    For an explanation of the original complexity of the balanced fertilization problem, see Magalie Bourblanc, Hélène Brives, “La construction du caractère ‘diffus’ des pollutions agricoles”, Études rurales, 183, 2009, 161-76.
  • [23]
    See Magalie Bourblanc, “Les politiques de reconquête de la qualité de l’eau face aux pollutions agricoles: changement et stabilité dans les arrangements de politiques publiques en Côtes-d’Armor et dans le Noord-Brabant”, PhD thesis in political science, Paris: Institut d’études politiques, 2007, chap. 3.
  • [24]
    For Keeler, co-management consists for agricultural organizations of “[…] working intimately with the government to formulate all aspects of agricultural policy, collaborating with state officials to implement that policy, and even utilizing power devolved from the state to administer policy directly at the local level”. See Keeler, Politics of Neocorporatism…, 64. The Chambers of Agriculture are one of the most important co-management institutions.
  • [25]
    The co-management system has undergone many transformations since the 1980s, well documented in Pierre Coulomb, Hélène Delorme, Bertrand Hervieu (eds), Les agriculteurs et la politique (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1990) (see in particular Jean-Paul Billaud’s discussion of research by Claude Servolin and Pierre Muller). The “old-school” co-management system is however far from a thing of the past in the Côtes-d’Armor department, as the head of agricultural economy at the DDA explains: “Few things get done without [the majority farmers’ union] […] This is no longer the era of co-management in France, but in the Côtes-d’Armor we’re very close to that system. This is how it goes in departments where agriculture is important, and the Côtes-d’Armor is an agricultural department where the director for agriculture is an important person, given a lot of authority by the prefect. […] All the decisions are made very amicably, even if the Confédération paysanne is also involved, they only represent a third of the farmers, the FDSEA has all the representatives at the Chamber of Agriculture […]” (DDA interview, Saint-Brieuc, 2005).
  • [26]
    This meant creating facilities for treating livestock effluent.
  • [27]
    Environmental organizations were in favor of dealing with the problem by reducing the volumes of effluent produced, and therefore the livestock population.
  • [28]
    This coalition includes the majority farmers’ union, agricultural economic organizations (such as cooperatives, producer groups), the Chamber of Agriculture, mutual organizations in the banking (the Crédit Agricole) and insurance sector (Groupama), and DDA representatives – other agricultural unions and environmental or consumer organizations active in the sector thus being excluded.
  • [29]
    In the Côtes-d’Armor, according to a departmental scale devised by the majority farmers’ union and DDA representatives, a small pig farm consists of around 150 sows.
  • [30]
    Yet, the two unions remained strongly at odds in the department: the Confédération paysanne denounced the hypocrisy of the FDSEA’s positions, claiming they contradicted the intensive, productivist agricultural model they still continued to defend.
  • [31]
    As a result, the Côtes-d’Armor FDSEA is sometimes thought to have more kinship with the left-wing ideals of the Confédération paysanne than with the FDSEA Finistère, though both FDSEA branches are affiliated to the same national union (FNSEA).
  • [32]
    Agricultural authorities are said to exert “strong control over structures” in the Côtes-d’Armor department.
  • [33]
    In the department, in addition to intensive farms, there are also extensive cattle farms with no surplus of manure. Their land occasionally needs to be enriched with fertilizers and can potentially be loaned to surplus-producing farms.
  • [34]
    On the tensions between the majority farmers’ union and economic organizations in the agricultural sector, see Magalie Bourblanc, “Le mythe de l’unité professionnelle agricole à l’épreuve de l’environnement”, Les Cahiers du Cevipof, 48, 2008, 65-89.
  • [35]
    Interview with the Côtes-d’Armor Chamber of Agriculture’s main negotiator on the Nitrates directive bylaws, Plérin, 2004.
  • [36]
    Animal manure can only be considered as a pollutant beyond a certain quantity that is particularly tricky to ascertain. Below that level, it is a natural fertilizer, and as such necessary for crop growth. On this point, see M. Bourblanc, H. Brives, “La construction…”.
  • [37]
    Ministerial directive, 21 January 1998.
  • [38]
    Le Pensec was MP for Finistère from 1973 to 1977 and Minister of Agriculture from June 1997 to October 1998.
  • [39]
    This means their production minus the land already legally available to them for application (also called terres en propre, meaning “legally used”) – either the farmers’ personal property or land leased to them before the manure management objectives came into force.
  • [40]
    Letters dated 9 April 1996 and 19 December 1996.
  • [41]
    In practice, this category concerns farms operating below the break-even point. The EDEI threshold is defined in the Departmental Agricultural Project [PAD, Projet agricole départemental].
  • [42]
    The allowance can be partially used up even before manure management measures have actually been taken by the farmers.
  • [43]
    Interview with the head of the department of “Regulated Installations for the Protection of the Environment” [ICPE, Installations classées pour la protection de l’environnement], Departmental Directorate of Veterinary Services [DDSV] (Rennes: 2004).
  • [44]
    PMPOA refers to the category of “contract-based public programme” defined by Lascoumes. See Pierre Lascoumes, “Négocier le droit. Formes et conditions d’une activité gouvernementale conventionnelle. Un exemple de néo-corporatisme dans les politiques d’environnement: contrats et programmes de branche et d’entreprise”, Politiques et management public, 11, 1993, 47-83.
  • [45]
    The second batch of measures cancelled out the first, whose implementation had followed a different paradigm.
  • [46]
    See M. Bourblanc, “Le mythe de l’unité…”.
  • [47]
    Policy settings are the third public policy component identified by Peter A. Hall ( “Policy paradigms, social learning and the state: the case of economic policy-making in Britain”, Comparative Politics, 25, 1993, 275-98), together with public policy goals and instruments.
  • [48]
    The DDA assumed that 55% of available land would actually be loaned.
  • [49]
    These agreements are limited to three years only and there are neither computer records of them, nor computer maps showing the location of land loaned in past agreements.
  • [50]
    Some farmers created dummy legal entities using fronts so as to be eligible for the “young farmer” and “economically insufficiently sized farms” categories.
  • [51]
    I cannot entirely rule out the hypothesis positing that some members of the so-called agricultural profession deliberately set out to come up with a complex set of regulations in order to subsequently profit from the imbroglio it created and bypass EU constraints. This rational-choice, strategist hypothesis is however very difficult to prove, which is why I have not considered it in this paper.
  • [52]
    Interview with the head of environment at the DDA, Saint-Brieuc, 2005. It is worth noting that in addition to around 100 semi-directive interviews with various actors involved in the agricultural pollution management process, I also conducted participant observation during a 2-month internship at the DDA, the DDSV and the Côtes-d’Armor Chamber of Agriculture in July-August 2005, which was absolutely necessary in order to better grasp the complexity of the legal measures and get acquainted with the very obscure technical jargon.
  • [53]
    At that point, the treatment facilities only processed nitrogen compounds – not all types of residue.
  • [54]
    Personal communication, Environment officer, Chamber of Agriculture, Plérin, 2006.
  • [55]
    Or, as the jargon goes, “legally used land was taken out from the ceiling” [faire sortir les terres en propre du plafond].
  • [56]
    A few big livestock farms have brought an action for annulment against administrative rulings, generally successfully. These actions often target the compatibility between the new national Nitrates regulation and the former ICPE regulatory framework, which used individual farms as a yardstick. The ICPE regulation is a French environmental regulation (law of 19 July 1976) concerning intensive livestock farms above a set production threshold. In practice, this regulation was only summarily applied until the 1990s.
  • [57]
    C. Lindblom, “The science of muddling through”; P. A. Hall, “Policy paradigm…”.
  • [58]
    Effluent is not a pollutant as such; only the surplus of effluent produced in relation to land available for application is.
  • [59]
    Field observations, DDSV internship, Ploufragan, July 2005.
  • [60]
    Official inspection report on the running of the Ille-et-Vilaine Departmental Hygiene Council [CDH, Conseil départemental d’hygiène]: “Élevages et fonctionnement du Conseil départemental d’hygiène en Ille-et-Vilaine”, 20 March 2001.
  • [61]
    The veterinary services have been appointed as rapporteurs on applications for authorization of new agricultural facilities at the Departmental Hygiene Council.
  • [62]
    The veterinary services were for a long time a subdivision of the DDA; the two were then formally separated in order to distinguish between the monitoring/funding tasks carried out by many DDA services and the more legal, control-oriented tasks that now needed to be done.
  • [63]
    Interview, Ploufragan, 2005.
  • [64]
    Interview with deputy head of service, DDSV internship, July 2005.
  • [65]
    Statement made by a member of the DDA environment service in the 13 July 2005 meeting of the CDH. The SAGE plan is described in Box 2.
  • [66]
    Eau et rivières magazine, 41, 1982, 24.
  • [67]
    Eau et rivières, 55, 1986.
  • [68]
    The EU directive referred to catchment areas with agricultural pollution issues as “vulnerable zones”. The entire region of Brittany was classified as a vulnerable zone.
  • [69]
    Conducting an exhaustive, farm-by-farm study to have a complete updated overview of the department’s agricultural landscape was not envisageable: the implementation of the EU Nitrates directive had suffered too many delays and public authorities had to act quickly to present their plan for dealing with surplus manure.
  • [70]
    The general agricultural census is a study conducted by the statistical services of the agricultural authorities relying on anonymous statements made by all French farmers. Some of the information therein may therefore be erroneous or incomplete. The most recent censuses were published in 1988, 2000 and 2010.
  • [71]
    I elaborate on this litigation in the following pages.
  • [72]
    Water management and improvement plan [SAGE, Schéma d’aménagement et de gestion des eaux]; Master plan for water management and improvement [SDAGE, Schéma directeur d’aménagement et de gestion des eaux].
  • [73]
    A catchment area consists of the entire drainage area of a body of water and its upstream tributaries.
  • [74]
    In order to avoid nitrate pollution.
  • [75]
    Between 2001 and late 2005, only the farms subject to a mandatory treatment threshold amounting to more than 25 000 nitrogen units (i.e., very high quantities) were also obligated to treat at least 80% of their phosphorus. This is now mandatory for all surplus farms.
  • [76]
    This meant, among other things, adding a centrifuge to existing manure treatment facilities.
  • [77]
    Council Directive 75/440/EEC of 16 June 1975 concerning the quality required of surface water intended for the abstraction of drinking water in the member states.
  • [78]
    Article 228 allows the Commission to impose a lump sum or a daily penalty payment on non-complying member states.
  • [79]
    Interview with a Secretariat General for European Affairs lawyer, Paris, 2007.
  • [80]
    The limit of nitrogen per hectare was set to 140kg (against 170kg in the Nitrates directive).
  • [81]
    Ten researchers from the BRGM and INRA institutes presented their (unpublished) findings in the fall of 2007.
  • [82]
    Between the mid 1990s and the mid 2000s.
  • [83]
    See M. Bourblanc, “Le mythe de l’unité…”.
  • [84]
    Interdepartmental and regional water unit [Mission interdépartementale et régionale de l’eau], linked to the regional prefecture.
  • [85]
    Decree of 30 May 2005.
  • [86]
    This was all the more the case as, initially, the measure included a substantial levy on production (to be collected by the authorities at the time of the merger), which was well received by these organizations, but was soon considerably reduced.
  • [87]
    P. Lascoumes, “Les instruments d’action publique, traceurs de changement…”, 76.
  • [88]
    Dominique Lorrain, “Les pilotes invisibles de l’action publique. Le désarroi du politique?”, in P. Lascoumes, P. Le Galès (eds), Gouverner par les instruments, 163-97.
  • [89]
    Pierre Lascoumes, Patrick Le Galès, “Introduction. Understanding public policy through its instruments – from the nature of instruments to the sociology of public policy instrumentation”, Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions, 20(1), 2007, 4.
  • [90]
    See P. Pierson, “Increasing returns…”.
  • [91]
    P. Pierson, “Increasing returns…”, 112-13.
  • [92]
    For a presentation of these alternatives to the increasing returns theory, see James Mahoney, “Path dependence in historical sociology”, Theory and Society, 29, 2000, 507-48.
  • [93]
    P. A. Hall, “Policy paradigm…”.Online
  • [94]
    Bruno Jobert (ed.), Le tournant néo-libéral en Europe. Idées et recettes dans les pratiques gouvernementales (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994).


Through the study of public programs to restore water quality in the Côtes-d’Armor, the author underlines that, despite the introduction of new environmental objectives within regional agricultural policy, continuity prevails over dynamics of change. This continuity is explained via an analysis that focuses on the policy instruments intended to implement these new objectives. The analysis shows the extent to which these instruments follow pre-conceived ideological frames of reference, thereby confirming the sociological neo-institutionalist approach. The article nevertheless highlights the emancipation of these instruments and concludes with the need to consider an “instrument dependency” phenomenon rather than a “path dependency” one.

Magalie Bourblanc
Magalie Bourblanc holds a PhD in political science from Sciences Po Paris and a PhD in management science from Radboud University Nijmegen (Netherlands). She is currently a CIRAD political science research fellow (UMR G-EAU, Montpellier, France) and a CEEPA guest research fellow (University of Pretoria, South Africa). Her publications include: (with Hélène Brives) “La construction du caractère ‘diffus’ des pollutions agricoles”, Études rurales, 183, 2009, 161-76; “The EU and global environmental governance”, in David Bailey, Jens-Uwe Wunderlich (eds), The European Union and Global Governance. A Handbook (London: Routledge, 2011), 131-9; “Transforming water resources management in South Africa. ‘Catchment management agencies’ and the ideal of democratic development”, Journal of International Development, 24, 2012, 637-48; and (with Ann Crabbé, Duncan Liefferink and Mark Wiering), “The marathon of the hare and the tortoise: implementing the EU water framework directive”, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, forthcoming. She studies public policy instrumentation in the agricultural and environmental fields, and is currently researching the implementation of water policy and land policy in South Africa (University of Pretoria, Private Bag X20 Hatfield, Pretoria 0028, South Africa).
Translated from French by 
Jean-Yves Bart
Uploaded on on 03/03/2014
Distribution électronique pour Presses de Sciences Po © Presses de Sciences Po. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait