Would the bio boom make a splash?

Organic has never been debated and has imposed itself in people's minds and practices as a matter of course. Last June, the Organic Agency, which has been scrutinizing this market for several years, published an impressive number of records. An explosion in the number of organic farms, a broadening of the range of crops that have become even greener, a significant boom in consumption and growing interest from distributors for a market that promises to be juicy. The government was not to be outdone and announced with great fanfare the goal of converting 15% of farms to organic by 2022. Alas, a senatorial report came out this Wednesday which is chilling the spirits. An ambition "out of reach", write the rapporteurs, who condemn the sleight of hand of the state and the lack of means and coordination to achieve these objectives.

Last June, the Organic Agency published exciting figures: 5,000 new farms had joined the ranks of organic farming, bringing the number to 41,623. A record level of recruitment. 9.5% of French farms were certified organic. A symbolic threshold had also been crossed with the passage of the 2 million hectares cultivated according to environmentally friendly principles. A figure that represented 7.5% of the useful agricultural area in France and was in line with the commitment of Emmanuel Macron and his government to increase it to 15% by 2022. The "Grenelle de l'Alimentation", which was taking place at the same time, was pushing the nail in by promising 20% of organic products in canteens and collective catering.

The promise didn't seem impossible to keep because organic seemed to be in a state of effervescence. Even the crops usually reserved for intensive agriculture were going green: cereals, oilseeds, and pulses were catching up fast, with a 31% jump in organic farmland, according to the Agence Bio in its annual report.

In viticulture too, the leap was very significant (+20%), with 12% of the French vineyard in organic (94,020 hectares) in 2018. To encourage winegrowers to take the plunge, a CAB (conversion to organic farming) label had even been created to cover the three-year conversion period.

Cold shower

Alas, a Senate report has dampened this enthusiasm. Alain Houpert, Senator Les Républicains de la Côte-d'Or, and Yannick Botrel, Senator of the Socialist and Republican Group of the Côtes-d'Armor, co-signatories of a report on public funding for organic farming presented on Wednesday, February 5, say that the State has, according to them, "adopted objectives for the development of organic farming even though it no longer has the autonomous means to achieve them and has only weakly exercised its coordination missions". Basically, a coup de com by the state that wanted to take advantage of the organic wave.

Certainly, honorable senators recognize that organic farming is gaining ground and that many farmers want to take the plunge. However, the senators believe that the target of 15% of agricultural land becoming organic by 2022 is untenable. We will not get there until at least 2026, they say.

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One of the reasons for this back-pedaling is, as always, budgetary. The funders of organic farming are usually scattered among a multitude of organizations: State, local authorities, European Fund, water agencies, etc.

An administrative imbroglio that prohibits any agility in reacting to the realities on the ground. Indeed, the Organic Agency was right: the number of organic farms has indeed jumped. But an attractiveness that the State was not able to satisfy. 5,000 farms became organic in one year, which was unsustainable from a budgetary point of view. This is why the State decided to stop supporting conversion aid in 2018. This was a very useful measure to help farmers get through the changeover and cushion the shock of an inevitable drop in yield. As a result, there have been increasing delays in the payment of the aid due, forcing too many farms into bankruptcy.

But these administrative excesses are not the only ones to extinguish the flame of organic farming. Senators also point out the responsibility of farmers and denounce in their report the windfall effects. Indeed, organic agriculture covers 7.5% of the useful agricultural surface. This is the figure published by the Organic Agency in 2019. However, a large number of farms are "in the process of conversion" and, according to the reporters, 60% of the land that has become organic is actually permanent grassland or fields reserved for fodder crops. Farmers who want to benefit from a windfall effect in this way, say they are switching to organic farming in order to receive aid and subsidies.

According to the rapporteurs, not 7.5% but just over 2.6% of agricultural land is organic. This is a far cry from the organic green salad or potato fields that can benefit from the green label.

The taste of organic

The result is not pleasing to the consumer. Because he has really taken a taste for organic products. He consumes it more and more but the French local production is unable to satisfy him fully. France thus imports a large part (31%) of its consumption of organic products. Imports are not very well controlled, with labeling specifications that differ from those of French farmers.

Focused on communication, the government has neglected, according to the rapporteurs, fundamental aspects. It has not given itself the means to achieve its ambitions. Public aid and funding for organic farming for the period 2013 to 2020 (€1.328 billion) represents barely 1% of the total aid allocated to agriculture over a comparable period (€144.1 billion). "An aberration," say the senators, who denounce the weakness and complexity of the aid granted to organic farmers. "They take a huge risk and are not supported. »

However, the growth in organic consumption is not questionable. "The consumption of organic products is growing at a rate very close to that of production. In 2018, the French spent an additional 1.4 billion euros, i.e. a total of 9.7 billion euros, which represents 5% of household food purchases," says Florent Guhl of the Agence Bio. Organic food is thus becoming a kind of refuge from the fears that consumers have about the quality of their food.

A boom that has not escaped the attention of mass distribution, which intends to take advantage of this market. "The supermarket model is incompatible with organic food," claimed Claude Gruffat, in his book Les dessous de l'alimentation Bio (La mer salée, 2017). Nevertheless, the fact remains that mass distribution, by dint of nibbling away at market shares, has claimed the largest share of the organic cake. In 2018, 49% of the products bearing the organic label were sold in the major retailers. This is a total of 4.75 billion euros, an increase of 22.6% in one year. And this movement is not about to stop. The Carrefour brand has set a target of 5 billion in organic by 2022 against 1.8 billion today. The same goes for Leclerc, where organic sales are expected to double in five years.

Faced with this steamroller, specialist stores such as La Vie claire, Biocoop, Les Nouveaux Robinsons, etc. are losing ground but are holding on to their 34% market share. The small independent shops, for their part, are no longer resisting; they are closing down. The only survivors are the short circuits, which maintain their position at 12% market share; a consolation for consumers who like short circuits and local shops, who want to be sure that their money goes into the producer's pocket.

We had the bio stolen.

In this context dominated by the larger ones, more and more voices are being raised among small producers, activists, and consumers to denounce the industrialists who are embarking on the sale of organic products, to the detriment of peasant values (respect for nature, solidarity between producers, food autonomy, diversity of crops and animal husbandry, etc.).

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Louis Julian is a pioneer of organic farming. He participated in the elaboration of the first specifications within Nature et Progrès, a set of methods and rules to respect the ecosystem (plant, animal, soil, human) as a whole. In Reporterre, he exclaims "we've been robbed of organic farming". For him, the European label has perverted organic farming: "Certain chemical treatments are authorized, as well as a small proportion of GMOs, especially in animal feed; the size of farms is not limited, and grazing is not mandatory. »

The existence of two types of organic farming has thus gradually become apparent. One that has kept the spirit of the beginning - diversified agriculture, on a family and local scale - and another that reproduces the classic industrial schemes, which can be called bio-technical, because it is satisfied with a minimal application of the specifications. This "industrial and above-ground bio", which accepts heated greenhouses and slatted floor farming, is widely contested by the pioneers, as is the development of "pseudo-organic" approaches such as " zero pesticide residue ".

The organic label is supposed to guarantee a healthy and environmentally friendly product. In reality, it is mainly used as a marketing argument for large food and retail chains.

Because behind the label there are many problems:

- It does not guarantee the absence of palm oil, particularly in spreads;

- Although organic milk and eggs are pesticide-free, they contain a number of carcinogenic pollutants. Jean Blaquière explains in Le Figaro that they are notably loaded with dioxins and PCBs, and paradoxically more so than so-called conventional products. These dioxins, he points out, come from industrial discharges, particularly from incinerators, and PCBs, chemical products whose manufacture has been banned in France since 1987, have the unfortunate tendency to accumulate in the soil and remain there for years. This is an aberration of the organic label, which favours grazing livestock, but does not control the soil. Thus, the farmer can convert his field to organic, even though it is located near a polluting installation.

- Half of the organic olive oils analysed contain plasticizers, in particular phthalates considered to be endocrine disruptors;

- Many guaranteed organic products do not mean that they are better for your health. This is particularly the case for organic fruit juices or organic cakes, which are usually very sweet.

In addition to these aberrations, other problems were pointed out by the NGO Générations futures, which published a report in June 2019 on pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables consumed in France, based on 13,300 official data produced by the French General Directorate for the Repression of Fraud (DGCCRF) from 2012 to 2017. The results are indisputable: out of fifty plants, 71.9% of fruit samples and 43.3% of vegetables contain pesticide residues; 2.9% of the fruit and 3.4% of the vegetables tested exceed the legal thresholds.

All these excesses show how a movement launched by activists concerned with defending small farmers against the logic of productivism, food quality, and respect for the environment is in danger of crashing into the gondola heads of mass distribution and the false promises of politicians.


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