France’s or­ganic rev­o­lu­tion

Veg­e­tar­i­ans and healthy eaters em­power the ‘bio’ move­ment

French Property News - - Contents - Peter-dan­ton de Rouf­fignac MA LLM lives in Per­pig­nan and ad­vises on all as­pects of buy­ing prop­erty and liv­ing in France. Francemed­prop­

While veg­e­tar­i­ans may still be thin on the ground – es­ti­mates put them at un­der 2% of the pop­u­la­tion – the French are un­der­go­ing a ver­i­ta­ble or­ganic rev­o­lu­tion. Known as ‘ bio’ – short for bi­ologique – or­ganic in France is all due to the emer­gence of the humble veg­gie burger as a pop­u­lar restau­rant choice. Some en­ter­pris­ing chefs in Paris started of­fer­ing a twice-the-price veg­etable-based al­ter­na­tive to the tra­di­tional ham­burger in re­sponse to de­mand from a grow­ing band of ‘flex­i­tar­i­ans’ – those who are not quite veg­e­tar­i­ans, but partly re­spon­si­ble for the over­all drop in meat con­sump­tion in France and among the es­ti­mated 65% of French cit­i­zens who ad­mit that they try to eat a veg­eta­blesonly meal at least once a month, a fig­ure up from 37% since 2003.

Though slow to take off, this quiet rev­o­lu­tion has been largely prompted by food scares, along with con­di­tions re­ported in abat­toirs, the spread of an­i­mal dis­eases and over­all en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns ex­pressed by more than 60% of the pop­u­la­tion. As a re­sult, more and more tra­di­tional pro­duc­ers, man­u­fac­tur­ers and re­tail­ers are en­ter­ing the bio mar­ket, while prices are start­ing to fall, and con­sump­tion is up by 20% over pre­vi­ous years.

The sta­tis­tics The sta­tis­tics are im­pres­sive and a sign that the bio rev­o­lu­tion is here to stay. Dur­ing 2016, the mar­ket over­all for veg­etable-based prod­ucts was up by 15% over pre­vi­ous years, and there were 23% more ter­rains con­vert­ing to or­ganic pro­duc­tion. As a re­sult, France (to­gether with Ger­many) now lies in third place be­hind Spain and Italy, Europe’s top coun­tries in terms of agri­cul­tural land used for or­ganic food pro­duc­tion. Over­all, Europe has 10 mil­lion hectares – rep­re­sent­ing 5% of agri­cul­tural land – oc­cu­pied by 200,000 farms (more than 3% of the to­tal) en­gaged in or­ganic pro­duc­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the Soil As­so­ci­a­tion*, Bri­tain is show­ing a slight de­cline, pos­si­bly due to the num­ber of el­derly farm­ers en­ter­ing re­tire­ment age. Some French ar­eas are more favoured than oth­ers – not supris­ingly those to the south and west, in­clud­ing Midi-Pyrénées, Rhône-alpes, Provence-alpes-Côte d’azur, and Langue­doc-rous­sil­lon. One of the ben­e­fits of the grow­ing or­ganic move­ment has been the cre­ation of new jobs at a time when pre­vi­ously there were con­cerns about the drain of work­ers from the French coun­try­side. There are now some 26,000 or­ganic pro­duc­ers (up by 7%), to­gether with over 9,000 trans­for­ma­teurs (man­u­fac­tur­ers of or­ganic food prod­ucts), and some 3,400 sup­pli­ers and dis­trib­u­tors. As we shall see, all the main French su­per­mar­kets now sell or­ganic foods and de­rived prod­ucts, along­side spe­cial­ist re­tail chains such as Bio-coop and La Vie Claire, in an in­dus­try now es­ti­mated at €5bn.

Meat or else! Look­ing back a few decades, as the French and other Euro­peans got richer in the boom years im­me­di­ately af­ter the Sec­ond World War, they started eat­ing more meat – even­tu­ally reach­ing over 100kg per per­son per year – but 45% fewer veg­eta­bles. This trend has only re­cently started to re­verse, with over­all meat con­sump­tion now down by 7% for many of the rea­sons al­ready noted.

What pro­po­nents of or­ganic prod­ucts have been at pains to point out is the huge cost of the feed­ing pro­teins found in veg­eta­bles to fat­ten up an­i­mals for con­sump­tion, at a rate of nearly 10g of pro­teins to pro­duce only 1g of meat. As a re­sult, more than half of the world’s pro­duc­tion of veg­etable pro­teins is fed to an­i­mals (added to other en­vi­ron­men­tal costs) when it is ar­gued that you can eat them your­self and save money! A veg­gie burger costs less than half to pro­duce but is of­ten dou­ble the price of the tra­di­tional ham­burg­ers of­fered in French restau­rants.

Sev­eral lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, faced with the task of re­duc­ing costs, were among the first to look at the al­ter­na­tives to serv­ing meat-only meals in school can­teens af­ter the gov­ern­ment de­creed that suit­able al­ter­na­tives should be of­fered when meat, fish and eggs were main items on the menu. One in­ter­est­ing ex­per­i­ment de­scribed by Dr Lylian Le­goff ** con­cerns a

small com­mune near Rennes which started ex­per­i­ment­ing some 10 years ago with ways to re­duce the cost of school din­ners, mainly by cut­ting down on the amount of meat served and re­plac­ing it with (or­ganic) veg­eta­bles. They adopted a pol­icy of iden­ti­fy­ing and work­ing with lo­cal pro­duc­ers, con­cen­trat­ing on fresh pro­duce that was in sea­son, ed­u­cat­ing ca­ter­ing staff in veg­e­tar­ian cui­sine, re­duc­ing waste, serv­ing or­ganic prod­ucts which the chil­dren found more fill­ing – and above all sav­ing or hold­ing down costs, as the al­ter­na­tives cost less to pre­pare and por­tion sizes re­duced. A sam­ple menu is shown be­low.

From pro­ducer to your plate There is now a small but rapidly ex­pand­ing net­work of or­ganic pro­duc­ers in France and they are backed up by a so­phis­ti­cated net­work of whole­sale mar­kets, dis­trib­u­tors, spe­cial­ist re­tail­ers – and most re­cently the ma­jor su­per­mar­ket chains which are ex­pand­ing their range of or­ganic foods, in­clud­ing both meat and veg­etable based.

Where I live in Pyrénées-ori­en­tales we have France’s largest whole­sale fruit and veg­etable mar­ket (St-charles) south of Per­pig­nan and con­ve­nient for the bor­der with Spain, from where most of the pro­duce ar­rives. Founded in 1965, it now houses some 150 firms (em­ploy­ing over 2,000 peo­ple) of which six are ex­clu­sively bio, re­ceives up to 5,000 vis­i­tors each work­ing day and posts an an­nual turnover of €1.8bn a year.

Un­til two or three years ago, the spe­cial­ist re­tail or­ganic chains – such as Bio-coop with nearly 400 out­lets, La Vie Claire (240+), Biomonde (200) and Nat­u­ralia (100+) – had a near mo­nop­oly although some towns had no recog­nis­able ‘health food’ shop. This is now chang­ing with the en­try of all the ma­jor French hyper­mar­ket and su­per­mar­ket chains (in­clud­ing rel­a­tively late ar­rivals Lidl and Aldi).

Their in­flu­ence on the or­ganic mar­ket has been widely dis­cussed in the French me­dia – from com­plaints about their con­tin­ued in­sis­tence on per­fect-sized and shaped veg­eta­bles (some 30% of car­rots are wasted) to the im­pact on prices as they de­velop their own-la­bel bio prod­ucts which are invariably cheaper than the highly pub­li­cised ma­jor brands.

Food wastage is now be­ing re­duced or even elim­i­nated since the gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced a law just com­ing into force which bans the prac­tice of throw­ing out food that is merely past its sell-by date or per­haps mis­shapen, and in par­tic­u­lar the use of chem­i­cal bleach to make the prod­uct ined­i­ble. Re­tail­ers are now re­quired to make for­mal ar­range­ments with char­i­ties and other groups (such as dis­count food shops) to col­lect food be­ing thrown-out, which must be cor­rectly han­dled and stored, and re-sold in food banks and can­teens for the home­less. This has put pres­sure on char­i­ties to pro­vide the cor­rect means of han­dling and stor­ing (con­tain­ers, re­frig­er­a­tors etc) of food­stuffs that be­fore were go­ing to waste.

Pos­i­tive ben­e­fits in­clude a wider choice of or­ganic prod­ucts now on sale in su­per­mar­kets and a nar­row­ing of the price gap be­tween the con­ven­tional prod­uct and the or­ganic al­ter­na­tive. My per­sonal food shop­ping is now about 70% or­ganic prod­ucts and a 20% higher monthly spend, us­ing my near­est su­per­mar­ket (Mono­prix). For­mal re­search in Bri­tain and Amer­ica shows that there can be a price dif­fer­en­tial of 20% to 60% be­tween tra­di­tional and or­ganic prod­ucts, de­pend­ing on fac­tors such as their coun­try of ori­gin.

Typ­i­cally I pay around €1.10 for a litre of milk; €2.08 for six eggs; €2.08 for a kilo of car­rots; and €2.10 for an or­ganic loaf ( pain aux céréales). The case of or­ganic milk is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing since the re­or­gan­i­sa­tion of the Bi­o­lait net­work which now buys di­rect from or­ganic farm­ers in­stead of through the large dis­tri­bu­tion co-op­er­a­tives which have dom­i­nated the mar­ket in the past.

Rules and con­trols So, how can you recog­nise that the food you buy is truly bio? There are few rules, but they are dra­co­nian and con­trolled by a se­ries of cer­ti­fi­ca­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions and ap­proved la­bels – such as the all-im­por­tant French AB cer­tifi­cate and ac­com­pa­ny­ing logo. AB cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of pro­duc­tion takes an av­er­age of three years to ac­quire, af­ter ex­ten­sive soil tests to estab­lish what chem­i­cal treat­ments have been ap­plied and how long it will take for the land to re­cover.

Or­ganic pro­duc­tion re­lies on us­ing nat­u­ral meth­ods to pre­serve the fer­til­ity of the soil, the qual­ity of the air and wa­ter used to ir­ri­gate, and an over­all re­spect for the en­vi­ron­ment – and the well-be­ing of an­i­mals. Pro­duc­tion meth­ods in­clude re­cy­cling or­ganic ma­te­ri­als, such as cre­at­ing or­ganic com­post, and the ro­ta­tion of crops, and a com­plete ban on chem­i­cal pes­ti­cides and fer­tilis­ers and the use of OGM (ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied) ver­sions. An­i­mals and poul­try are reared out­doors and fed or­gan­i­cally, and only nat­u­ral reme­dies are used in cases of ill­ness.

France has some of the strictest rules with the ECOCERT cer­ti­fi­ca­tion body con­trol­ling

More and more are en­ter­ing the 'bio' mar­ket, with prices start­ing to fall, and con­sump­tion up

some 70% of all op­er­a­tors, with the re­main­der be­ing cer­ti­fied by eight (largely re­gional) or­gan­i­sa­tions. These bod­ies can ad­vise on and su­per­vise the process of ‘go­ing or­ganic’ with pe­ri­odic unan­nounced vis­its dur­ing the av­er­age three years of mov­ing from tra­di­tional to or­ganic pro­duc­tion. AB in­spec­tors will check in­voices of sup­pli­ers to en­sure that no chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers or weed­killers are be­ing used and have the pow­ers to sus­pend cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. They also note prob­lems and can ad­vise on is­sues such as con­tam­i­na­tion from neigh­bour­ing non-or­ganic farms.

Many or­ganic pro­duc­ers now get to­gether in groups to help each other in the process of cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, to lobby against threats to nat­u­ral food pro­duc­tion and en­sure – some­times by means of unan­nounced vis­its – that rules and stan­dards are be­ing main­tained by their mem­bers. Sim­i­lar rules are ap­plied by the Soil As­so­ci­a­tion in Bri­tain.

Man­u­fac­tur­ers of or­ganic prod­ucts are sub­ject to sim­i­lar in­spec­tions and con­trols to en­sure that only cer­ti­fied or­ganic raw ma­te­ri­als are used in their prod­ucts.

At the re­tail end, con­sumers need to be aware of the recog­nised AB sym­bol and wary of vague and mean­ing­less de­scrip­tions such as ‘nat­u­ral’ or ‘farm fresh’. A 100% cer­tain source is the (cer­ti­fied) or­ganic farm shop or lo­cal co-op­er­a­tive that you may find near you and can visit and ob­serve for your­self the meth­ods of or­ganic pro­duc­tion. Within the wine in­dus­try how­ever, some grow­ers have re­jected the of­fi­cial bio la­bel and opt in­stead for their own or­ganic meth­ods of cul­ti­vat­ing grapes and mak­ing wine ac­cord­ing to their own ex­act­ing stan­dards – and re­ly­ing very much on their per­sonal rep­u­ta­tion among their cus­tomers.

Many lo­cal tourist of­fices are now co­or­di­nat­ing lists of such or­ganic out­lets – when I last checked for my own area (Pyrénées-ori­en­tales) they in­cluded guides to lo­cal pro­duce mar­kets and more than 40 or­ganic farm shops sell­ing fruit and veg­eta­bles, cheeses, honey, eggs, olives, olive oil – and of course, wine (around 50 and grow­ing).

Lo­cal eco-tourism, which in­cludes his­tory, cul­ture, ru­ral arts and crafts, also in­volves iden­ti­fy­ing gîtes that of­fer veg­e­tar­ian and or­ganic meals as well as the still com­par­a­tively rare 100% or­ganic restau­rants and cafés, but many in­clude those of­fer­ing ‘al­ter­na­tive’ dishes on their menu. If you own or are think­ing of start­ing a gîte or cham­bres d’hôte busi­ness, go­ing or­ganic might be among your strong­est sell­ing points.

If you own a gîte busi­ness, go­ing or­ganic might be among your strong­est sell­ing points

Above: 65% of French cit­i­zens try to eat a veg­eta­blesonly meal at least once a month, up from 37% in 2003 Left: Veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants in France are no longer the rar­ity they once were – 5 Lorette in Paris is known for cre­at­ing mouth-wa­ter­ing ve­gan dishes such as this, full of or­ganic, gluten-free su­per­foods

La Ruche Qui Dit Oui or­gan­ises weekly pop-up mar­kets sell­ing lo­cal and or­ganic prod­ucts across France

Or­ganic wine has be­come more pop­u­lar in France.

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