"Forget the ecologists and the 68ers – we are professionals." That’s what the technician from the agricultural cooperative Terres du Sud told us during a tour of intensive poultry farms, producing organic chickens, in France’s Lot-et-Garonne department, back in 2009. The farmers on the tour were supposed to be won over by offers of loans and state aid, and the performance of the facilities that the agricultural cooperative would deliver on a turnkey basis. To satisfy supermarkets and mass catering, France’s powerful agricultural cooperatives, which are tied to major agro-industry companies, are racing to raise "safe" chickens, taking advantage of new EU regulations that allow farmers to produce up to 75,000 organic meat chickens a year, and set no limit on numbers of organic egg-laying chickens. (To meet one of the targets set by the Grenelle Environment Forum, the French government plans that 20 per cent of the food offered by canteens in government agencies and public institutions should be sourced organically by 2012.)
The cooperatives have realized that they can make money from an approach to farming they used to scorn, by applying their own methods. "The farmers are all on very tight contracts and have lost their autonomy," said Daniel Florentin of the farmers’ trade union Confédération Paysanne; he is a former organic chicken farmer who used to work with the cooperative Maïsadour, based in southwest France. "It will take them at least 20 years to pay off their loans and they have to sell everything they produce to the cooperative, which takes it all, but without agreeing a price in advance. They are simply being absorbed – it’s common practice in conventional intensive farming."
Stimulated by health and environmental concerns, the consumption of organic food in France has grown 10 per cent a year since 1999. In 2009 sales of organic products rose by 19 per cent, despite the economic crisis. Once marginal, the organic market is now booming; supermarkets now account for more than 45 per cent of total sales. (Most of the statistics given here come from Agence Bio’s press pack "Les chiffres de la bio sont au vert", 2010; and the 2009 edition of its report "Agriculture Biologique: Chiffres Clés", published by La Documentation Française, Paris.)
Yet in 2009 organic farmland was still only 2.46 per cent of France’s utilised agricultural land. Leading players in the market have found two ways to satisfy consumer demand: large-scale imports and the development of intensive, industrial organic farming.
The concept of organic farming was developed in Europe in reaction to the chemically reliant and productivist agriculture that became widespread after the second world war. In the early 1960s a network of French organic smallholders and consumers established Nature et Progrès (N&P). This organisation attracted many city dwellers who felt a need to get closer to the land. It established links with ecological and political movements such as the smallholders’ union Paysans-Travailleurs and the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s, and Confédération Paysanne and the anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) movement in the 1990s. N&P integrated into its charter diversification and rotation of crops, autonomy for individual farms, renewable energy, the defence of smallholders, biodiversity, the use of seed produced by farmers themselves, food sovereignty and a ban on synthetic products. To re-establish links between the producer and the consumer, organic products were sold through local markets, fairs and purchasing groups, which eventually led to the creation of the Biocoop network. N&P’s charter inspired that of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (Ifoam), adopted in 1972, which linked ecological, social and humanist objectives to agronomic criteria.
A lack of transparency
But this agricultural and social movement lacked coherence. In the 1980s N&P’s officially approved standards were in competition with those of over a dozen other movements. In 1991 Brussels took the confusion as an excuse to impose a set of rules for the entire European Union; food produced in France under these rules carries the AB (agriculture biologique) logo. The creation of private, commercial certification bodies went against the spirit of participatory regulation, in which producers, consumers and processors had all been involved.
This threw N&P into crisis. Some members decided to boycott the AB logo; others, tempted by the growing certified organic market, left the association. "Certification favoured vertical integration of the industry at the expense of solidarity networks," explained Jordy Van Den Akker, a former president of N&P. "Ecological and social values, which we feel are an important part of organic farming, are no longer linked to the economics. The EU label and EU rules have led to the development of an international market that allows free circulation of products, trade and competition. That’s not what we’re about."
An EU regulation that came into force on 1 January 2009 made it legal for organic products to contain up to 0.9 per cent of GMOs and included dispensations on the use of chemicals. Guy Kastler, a farmer based in France’s Hérault region and an N&P militant said: "GMOs are completely incompatible with organic farming. We still insist on 0 per cent GMOs. The new regulation defines standards and pays no attention to farming practices. We have gone from rules about methods (of cultivation used), to rules about results (residue detectable in the finished product). This opens the door wide to industrialised organic agriculture."
The cooperatives have been at the forefront of this process. Their profit margins are considerable, because they also grow and supply poultry feed to farmers. The old French regulations required organic livestock farmers to produce at least 40 per cent of the feeds they used on their land. The new EU regulations have severed this link to the land; farmers now buy all their feeds from the cooperatives. One of the major ingredients is soya. In 2008 organic chicken production in France rose by 17 per cent, but organic soya production fell by 28 per cent, and it became necessary to use imported soya, which is far cheaper.
In November 2008 several hundred tons of Chinese organic soya imported by a subsidiary of the French cooperative Terrena were withdrawn after tests revealed they contained very high levels of melamine. Terrena has ceased trading with its Chinese supplier but still buys soya on the international market – dominated by brokers, who are not keen on transparency.
Organic soya from Italy – which may have been grown in Romania or Poland – has to compete with soya from Brazil, grown in the states of Paraná (by small farmers dependent on major exporters) and Mato Grosso (where organic fazendas, large estates, can cover as much as 5,000 hectares). Mato Grosso is the state most implicated in the destruction of the Amazon rain forest.
According to WWF France, soya cultivation is directly or indirectly responsible for the destruction of 2.4m hectares of forest in South America every year. There is no requirement for organic soya imported from Brazil to be certified as having played no role in this.
Although organic farming is only a small part of the activities of the big French cooperatives, they are keen to assert their supremacy: Terrena has bought out Bodin, the leading French organic chicken producer; Le Gouessant has acquired the animal and plant health and nutrition specialist l’Union Française d’Agriculture Biologique; Euralis has a major stake in the union of organic agricultural cooperatives, Agribio Union. Many regional inter-professional associations for the promotion of organic farming and almost all chambers of agriculture, which are increasingly involved in managing organic farming, have fallen under the influence of the cooperatives. The Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (which regulates French agricultural products with protected designation of origin and is also responsible for applying the EU regulations in France) is headed by Michel Prugue, president of Maïsadour, which markets a range of genetically modified seeds.
The cooperatives, which are not opposed to the use of chemicals in "conventional" agriculture, are strengthening their ties to multinationals involved in the research and development of GMOs. The Swiss company Syngenta, formed by a spin-off of the agrochemical division of Novartis, has a 40 per cent stake in Maïsadour-Semences, a seed-producing subsidiary of Maïsadour. Maïsadour-Semences has production facilities around the world. (In October 2007 employees of a security firm working for Syngenta killed a local leader of MST — Brazil’s landless agricultural workers’ movement — , who, with 100 other agricultural workers, was occupying an experimental GMO field belonging to the Swiss company in the state of Paraná.)
There may be a link between the growing influence of cooperatives with financial interests in the GMO sector and the European Commission’s decision to permit a GMO content of up to 0.9 per cent in organic products, although the European parliament had been opposed to this.
France imports more than 60 per cent of its organic fruit and vegetables. Based in southwest France, ProNatura is the country’s leading distributor to specialist stores and supermarkets. In less than a decade, ProNatura’s sales have increased tenfold and it has absorbed four other companies; 25 per cent of what it sells is produced in France, but the rest is imported from Spain (18 per cent), Morocco (13 per cent), Italy (10 per cent) and 40 other countries.
ProNatura was the first in France to market organic fruit and vegetables out of season. This does not stop its founder, Henri de Pazzis, from preaching respect for the land, the environment, the smallholder and the consumer. The rules imposed by the supermarket operators are far removed from these principles: "They have adopted the same destructive purchasing mechanisms for organic products that they use for conventional farming products," said de Pazzis. "They are aggressively encouraging competition. They have dropped some of our products because other suppliers are asking far lower prices." This price war leaves little room for social considerations or respect for the environment.
Same methods, but ‘certified’
For the last 12 years, ProNatura has been importing organic strawberries from Spain, grown by Bionest. That company’s bosses Juan and Antonio Soltero own 500 hectares of greenhouses in Huelva province, in Andalusia, which at first glance seem no different from the thousands of conventional greenhouses that cover the plain, wrecked by a monoculture of strawberries that is polluting and exploitative of agricultural workers. Bionest is located in Doñana National Park, which is on Unesco’s World Heritage list. According to WWF Spain, the number of greenhouses in the park is growing, and this is having a serious impact on the environment, particularly because of the threat to water reserves.
Bionest uses much the same methods as conventional growers: its plants are fertilized via a drip-feed irrigation system; it shows no regard for biodiversity (the few varieties it grows are the same as those in conventional greenhouses); and it is engaged in monoculture. But Bionest is entitled to call its strawberries organic because its inputs are certified. The crop is harvested by hundreds of women from Romania, Poland and the Philippines. The latter are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. It’s a sensitive subject, and the Solteros are unwilling to answer questions about it.
The women are recruited directly in their home countries by Spanish employers’ organizations, and come each year on short-term visas and contracts. They don’t know their rights and are at the mercy of their employers. Francis Prieto, a member of the local branch of the agricultural workers’ union SOC made a surprise visit to the lodgings Bionest provides for its workers. The women live in strictly controlled isolation, amid the greenhouses: they are allowed no visitors, have to ask permission to go out, and are made to hand over their passports. Prieto said: "They live in fear of their bosses and are exploited in the same way as other seasonal workers in Huelva province, under harsh working conditions."
Bionest is not an isolated case. In Almería, another Andalusian province, Agrieco produces over 11,000 tons of "organic" tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers a year. Its greenhouses use the latest technology, its inputs are certified organic and its workforce is made up of Romanian and Moroccan women. Its president Miguel Cazorla is confident that the company will grow. In early winter, Agrieco’s vegetables are on the shelves of specialist stores and supermarkets throughout Europe, competing with those grown in the "organic" greenhouses of Italy, Morocco and Israel. The trade war around the Mediterranean is growing in intensity, to the benefit of the middlemen.
The little agricultural cooperative of La Verde, in the mountains of the southernmost Andalusian province of Cádiz, was founded in the 1980s by a group of day labourers, members of the SOC, who obtained the land they farm after a hard struggle at the end of the Franco era. Six families grow fruit and vegetables and keep a few cows and sheep on 14 hectares. They sell everything they produce in Andalusia, through another cooperative, Pueblos Blancos, made up of 22 smallholders and organic cooperatives. Manolo Zapata said: "We were among the first to go into organic farming. The methods were similar to those our grandparents and great-grandparents used, and it fitted in with what we were fighting for. If organic farming doesn’t help to restore equity, justice, autonomy, self-sufficiency and food sovereignty, it has no meaning. ("Food sovereignty" is a term standing for the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems; ?see the Declaration of Nyéléni on the Forum for a new World Governance website.)
The certification bodies are not on our side. Farmers who diversify their crops and grow several different varieties are taxed more heavily than those who choose intensive monoculture."
When La Verde publicly accused Andalusia’s ecological agriculture committee (CAAE), Spain’s main certification body, of favouritism towards organic big business, it was subjected to an avalanche of inspections. Its members have created the largest farmers’ seed bank in Spain, which allows them not only to grow crops from their own seed but also to supply all the organic smallholders in the region. They now fear repression. "There are laws and standards that take away our ancestral right to grow our own seed and prevent us from certifying the ancient varieties we have preserved," said Zapata. The EU regulations on organic farming require farmers to use seed certified as organic. If they don’t have it, they have to buy seed on the open market. "For the moment, we are just about legal, but if we were banned from selling our products tomorrow, we would have to use organic seed sold by Monsanto." (See the Grain report, "Whose harvest? The politics of organic seed certification", Barcelona, January 2008.) La Verde is thinking of following the example of some members of N&P and withdrawing from the organic certification system.
Resistance to organic big business
There are similar cases in Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, India, Italy and France. Resistance to organic big business is growing across the globe. More and more smallholders, rural communities and small farmers’ cooperatives are defending smallholder farming and other forms of agriculture that emphasise farming on a human scale, respect for biodiversity and food sovereignty. Many choose not to apply for organic certification and have created participatory guarantee systems founded on exchange and trust between producers and consumers. Networks have been formed to defend the right of farmers to grow and sell their own seed.
In France, the associations for the maintenance of smallholder farming (Amap) that put consumers in direct touch with producers, bypassing the market, are so popular that they are unable to satisfy demand. The Terre de Liens organisation raises and provides funds to help young people establish themselves as organic farmers. To set itself apart from the EU regulations, the Fédération Nationale de l’Agriculture Biologique (national federation for organic farming) has created a new brand, Bio Cohérence. This will complement official certification, requiring users to maintainfar higher standards and follow principles inspired by those adopted by Ifoam in 1972. N&P continues to defend its ideals of organic smallholder farming.
The future of organic food and farming depends on whether or not social and ecological values remain part of the concerns of producers, processors and consumers. Will it become just another sector of the market, governed only by neoliberal economics? Or will it continue to offer an alternative?
Translated by Charles Goulden
Philippe Baqué is editor of De la bio alternative aux dérives du "bio"-business, quel sens donner à la bio?, forthcoming 2011.
This article appears in the March edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, the excellent monthly whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.