Out of Camembert Boxes? Poplar Shortage Threatens French Food Industry

The French culinary world was shaken by disrupting news in early May—the nation is currently facing a shortage of poplars, the fast-growing trees used to make Camembert cheese boxes, oyster baskets, and vegetable crates. And according to the Vice President of the National Council of Poplars, Hervé Drouin, the situation has grown urgent.

The volume of poplar tree plantations has decreased significantly over the past several years. In the 1990s, France planted nearly 2 million trees per year, compared to a mere 650,000 reported in 2013.

“If there is no awareness… we could have very big problems later,” explained Drouin, whose eponymous packaging company based in Sarthe has a significant investment in the health of the poplar tree crop.

Decreased financing of the poplar industry has stemmed from repeated storms over the past decade that have destroyed much of the crop and discouraged many from the once-lucrative industry. Some towns and their elected representatives have explicitly rejected planting more trees due to the price drop caused by the storms.

Poplar trees have historically served as the casing for the famous French Camembert, among other products. Photo: Jon Sullivan for Wikimedia Commons

Poplar trees have historically served as the casing for the famous French Camembert, among other products. Photo: Jon Sullivan for Wikimedia Commons

The need to import poplar for packaging could pose serious economic problems. France is currently the one of the largest producers of poplar wood, second only to China, with 240,000 hectares of poplar plantations nationwide. The country currently exports poplar products to a number its European neighbors, particularly Italy, which recently stopped growing the trees.

While France could turn to plastic packaging, there is a cultural resistance to such an unfamiliar change, as well as a number of practical counterarguments. According to Olivier de Lagausie, Chief Executive of the National Union of Industries in Light Wood Packaging, poplar is particularly “flexible, durable and lightweight.” According to a statement given to the French paper Le Figaro, poplar wood “helps to preserve food, because it regulates moisture and limits the growth of bacteria while being easily transportable.”

Poplars also have an important cultural place in France’s history, beyond its role in encasing one of France’s most famous cheeses. Poplars have traditionally been considered a highly lucrative investment. The title character in Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet plants three thousand of them by the banks of the Loire River to “fill up his coffers,” and an old wives’ tale dictates that wealthy landowners would plant fields of poplars upon the birth of a daughter, in order to harvest them twenty years later to finance her wedding.

To encourage the continuation of poplar growth, the industry has started a charter entitled “Thank the Poplar,” hoping to subsidize half the price of the tree’s maintenance.


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