Is Organic Food About to Become the Norm in France?

organic foodClose you eyes and imagine a world where organic food is the norm, where you have to seek out a “conventional” label if you wanted anything else. Now open your eyes – that’s pretty close to becoming the reality in France.

Organic food sales have been rising astronomically in the EU’s largest agricultural producing country, with a 20 percent increase in 2016, the fastest pace in seven years.

This is a huge departure from France’s past with the organic food movement; the nation had been relatively slow to take to the trend in the past decade, particularly when compared to neighbors like Germany or to the U.S. As the top pesticide user in Europe, with 78,000 tons of phytosanitary products in its fields, France’s reluctance to jump on the organic food bandwagon was a real shame.

That said, France had more than enough reasons to temper its enthusiasm for organic. Unlike the U.S., France has forbidden the growth of GMO foods since 2008, making many French people less worried about what’s in their food than Americans tend to be.

Add to this the fact that the French have many other historic quality labels, such as Label Rouge, which ensures that animals are raised according to strict dietary and humane standards including access to the outdoors. Label Rouge beef is grass-fed, and Label Rouge veal and lamb are allowed to consume milk for as long as possible before being weaned. This label also forbids the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, and medical treatments of animals bearing the label are kept to a strict minimum.

Another such quality label in France is the AOC label, or Appellation d’origine controlée. This label is used for certain meats, cheeses, wines, and some fruits and vegetables like lentils, grapes, and walnuts. Each food has strict standards to follow to ensure that quality is coherent, particularly as far as the production location is concerned: AOC Brie must be made in Brie, for example, and AOC Bordeaux in the region around Bordeaux.

But last year, a third label — Agriculture biologique — took off in France, and with it, the organic food market. Agriculture biologique is very similar to the USDA organic label, with a 95 percent minimum on organic ingredients in all products carrying the label, as well as an absence of synthetic ingredients.

Agence Bio reported that organic food sales are set to reach 6.9 billion euros ($7.7 billion) in France this year.

“The take-off of the organic sector is being confirmed in 2016,” Didier Perreol, president of Agence Bio, told reporters.

And supply is ready to meet demand, direct from one of Europe’s biggest agricultural producers. Organic farmland in France has expanded to 1.57 million hectares, amounting to about 5.8 percent of the total farmland in France, and about 200 new specialty organic stores opened in the first half of the year to sell organic products, while supermarkets are experiencing double digit growth in organic food sales.

Organic food doesn’t outweigh conventional yet, but it’s definitely reaching new heights and showing no sign of slowing down.

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.