Record number of French farms convert to organic

A French dairy farmer milks cows to collect organic milk, some of which will be used to make butter, at his farm in Saint-Colomban, France, October 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Paris/Reuters – A record number of French farms switched to organic production last year, helped by the grains sector catching on to the trend, the country’s organic food agency said on June 4.

France, the European Union’s largest agricultural producer, added 5,000 organic farms last year, surpassing a prior high of 4,200 seen in both 2016 and 2017, the Agence Bio said in an annual market review.

That increased the number of organic farms by 13 per cent to 41,600, or 9.5 per cent of all French farms. The organic farmland area expanded by 17 per cent to 2 million hectares, or 7.5 per cent of all farmland.

We’ve taken a step forward in the crop sector. Before it wasn’t the done thing to convert to organic, now it’s become something normal. – Philippe Henry

In the crop sector, the organic area jumped 31 per cent to 514,000 hectares, or 4.3 per cent of the national crop area.

“We’ve taken a step forward in the crop sector,” Philippe Henry, a farmer and president of Agence Bio, told reporters. “Before it wasn’t the done thing to convert to organic, now it’s become something normal.”

Weak prices for conventional grain, subsidies for organic farming and supply chain investments encouraged more crop farmers to switch, Agence Bio said, adding that conversions were mainly outside grain belts with the highest yields.

The share of organic farmland in France, however, is still only half of a 15 per cent target the government has set for 2022.

The sharp rise in organic production was helping keep pace with strong consumer demand and cap imports, Agence Bio said.

Organic food sales rose 15.7 per cent last year to 9.7 billion euros ($10.9 billion), or 5 per cent of overall food spending by French households, it said.

That kept France as the EU’s second-largest organic food market, behind Germany which saw sales of 10.9 billion, it said.

Supermarkets, which accounted for 49 per cent of sales last year, drove demand by giving consumers greater access to organic food, it added.

The share of imports was stable at 31 per cent in volume terms.

Agence Bio, a government-backed body that promotes organic farming, played down the risk that fast growth would erode price premiums for farmers and also lead to less sustainable practices, saying the sector would adjust.

Farming organisations are currently debating whether to allow heating of greenhouses for organic production in France, leading some groups to criticise industrial methods.

– Reporting by Gus Trompiz

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