France's organic farmers 'green with rage' over lack of government support

By Alison Hird - RFI
France  RFIPauline Gleize
FEB 28, 2024 LISTEN
© RFI/Pauline Gleize

French farmers are showcasing their wears, and their woes, at the annual agricultural fair in Paris. And while each sector has its particular problems, organic farmers say they're facing the double blow of a drop in sales and a reduction in government support.

Jean-Maxime Buisson raises 3,000 laying hens on his organic farm in Bourdeaux in the southern Drôme region. An administrator with France's Organic Farming Federation (FNAB) he says difficulties in the sector kicked in following the second Covid lockdown at the end of December 2020.

"Lockdown turned the market upside down in terms of consumer habits, and at the same time the state withdrew finance," he told RFI. "Our region lost the MAB – the bonus to help maintain organic agriculture. That was the first stab in the back."

Buisson has his own network for selling his eggs and some of his chicken feed is produced on the 30-hectare family farm, but he's still felt the impact of inflation and the economic crisis.

“Our charges have gone up a lot and I've scarcely drawn a salary to avoid having to lay staff off.  The €110 million emergency plan that the government put on the table in 2023 has helped me hang on to my employees, but we have no prospects.”

He hopes that running a small farm means he can adapt more easily to the uncertainty of the market, but bigger organic farmers are more vulnerable.

"People who are working in longer chains need strong support because distributors don't play the game and soak up a big part of the profit margins.”

Drop in sales

After years of growth in France's organic food market,  sales dropped by 5 percent (excluding inflation) in 2022.

“50 percent of organic apples are not finding buyers," says Vincent Delmas, a sheepfarmer and marketgardener, who is also a representative with the Farmers' Confederation union (Confederation Paysanne).

"Maybe a lot of people converted to organic and the market wasn't sufficiently developed," he told RFI.

But he also blames the state's failure to fully implement the 2018 Egalim law which aims to increase the protection of farmers in their trade relations with the large retail sector, allowing them to set selling prices based on their production costs.

The law also set a target of 20 percent organic produce in public-subsidised canteens such as schools, by 2022.

That hasn't happened, says Delmas, "so the state has a responsibility, and so do the big supermarkets – their profit margins on organic foods are much bigger than on non-organic".

This has led to consumers with tights budgets "turning away from organic foods", he says.

Meanwhile, the amount of farmland converted to organic dropped by 24 percent in 2022, and the number of farmers giving up on organic farming has increased. 

Delmas fears that the trend could continue.
“When you see that organic grain is bought for the same price as non-organic, some people are asking themselves questions because they've got higher costs and lower yields.”

'We feel abandoned'

Organic farmers also feel let down by the government's decision to pause a plan on reducing pesticide use following major protests by France's leading farming unions.

The government has notably abandoned a measure called Nodu which would have limited the quantity of pesticides farmers are allowed to use. Instead, they will use a measure based on the strength of pesticides used.

Buisson says France's turnabout on reducing pesticides – which pose a significant risk to human health and the environment – didn't begin just a few weeks back. 

"It's been going on for six years or so," he said. “An organic farmer used to receive just over 200 euros per hectare to compensate for services rendered [by not using pesticides]. “It's gone down to 92 euros."

And while the government put an additional €50mn on the table this month to help organic farmers get through the crisis, this is far from enough, Buisson told RFI.

“Our network estimates a loss of €300 mn in 2023. We feel abandoned. And yet given what's at stake regarding human health, we should be supported.”

In April 2022, while campaigning for a second term, President Emmanuel Macron promised to make France "a great green nation". But Buisson says the reality has simply made farmers like him “green with rage”.

This article was based on reporting by Pauline Gleize, words by Alison Hird.