France’s organic revolution
Vegetarians and healthy eaters empower the ‘bio’ movement
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