Fewer consumers, fewer cultivated areas... why is organic farming in crisis?

Fewer consumers, fewer cultivated areas… why is organic farming in crisis?

The days of “all beautiful, all organic” are long gone. Areas cultivated in organic farming have lost 54,000 hectares in one year. A first. Consumers are turning away and more and more farmers are dropping out, burdened by the costs.

“The silos are full,” notes Julien Bourgeois. That’s the problem. » On the plains of the village of Nitry, in Yonne, strange sausages bloat the surrounding land. They contain cereals, placed there due to lack of space in the silos. “We have a year’s stock of spelled which cannot find a buyer,” laments Julien Bourgeois. This organic cereal grower who took over from his father co-administers the Cocebi cooperative, which brings together 200 farmers in the region.

Normally, Cocebi products end up as wheat flour, flax seeds or sunflower oil in organic stores. But today, its salespeople are working hard to find buyers, particularly in Northern Europe. If they do not succeed, the cereals will go into a methanizer. Because, unlike other sectors, cereal growers specializing in organic farming cannot sell part of their products on the non-organic market in order to limit losses: the machines of conventional processors are in fact not calibrated for rare cereals that they produce: buckwheat, rye, einkorn (a type of wheat)…

Gone are the days when supermarket shelves were full of organic products of all kinds, from fruits to vegetables to whipped cream. The French are shunning organic and specialized farmers are plunging into crisis. The organic sections are becoming bare as customers turn away. The sector constituted 6.5% of consumers’ food in 2020, it stood at 5.6% in 2023. Almost all products are affected: milk, pork, eggs, vegetables, fruits, cereals… Organic has lost 172 million euros in turnover in 2021 and will only bring in 5 million euros in 2023. What happened to make the public turn away to this extent from a range so widely praised for its virtuous effects on health and the planet?

“At the beginning of the year, the producer in my village had to cease his activity because he was not financially secure,” says Florence, 53, a consumer from Hérault. For a long time, I have favored this sector out of conviction and for the health of my children, two of whom have different allergies. But the nearby specialty stores are much too expensive, so I only buy organic for certain vegetables. »

This decisive price effect, boosted by inflation in recent years, is not the only cause. “Some brands jumped into the breach during the years of euphoria and charged enormous prices to make extra margins,” adds Philippe Camburet, president of the National Federation of Organic Agriculture (Fnab). This gave organic a bad image. The French had the impression of being had. »

Media reports on “fake organic” and “biobashing” campaigns (denigration of organic, Editor’s note) have made consumers doubt. According to a barometer from the Agence Bio, a public interest group, 62% of consumers consider that the famous green label “is mainly marketing”.Laure Verdeau, director of the agency, sighs. “Certainly, organic doesn’t bring back your loved one. But it corresponds to very solid production specifications. » Furthermore, a certain fatigue has overtaken consumers drowned in the labels: Zero pesticide residue, Red Label, HVE.

However, while demand fell, supply exploded. How could farmers not have been attracted by a sector that promised such good fruits, with double-digit growth? 22% in 2016, 18% in 2017, up to 13% in 2020… How could they not have followed, while the public authorities were pushing the wheel, setting a target of 15% organic surfaces in France in 2022 (EGalim law of 2018), and 21% by 2030 (government ecological planning)? Today we are at 10.4%.

A responsibility of the State

“In 2017, the progression of organic was such that this threshold seemed achievable,” recalls Philippe Camburet. But then the government said: “You are off to a good start, you will get there without us. ” » This same fateful year, the State eliminated aid for maintaining organic farming. “The problem is that when the market no longer responds, everything can quickly fall apart. We are not there yet but the situation does not fail to worry,” continues the cereal grower, a few minutes after receiving the call from a cooperative riddled with debt.

For Julien Bourgeois, the co-administrator of the Nitry group, the government’s logic consisting of “not choosing between conventional and organic is not tenable”. Public money in agriculture comes mainly from the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and represents half of farmers’ income. As its amount has been decreasing for twenty years, it is necessary to arbitrate. “But our government will never dare to announce to conventional agriculture, the majority in France, that it will pay it less money,” explains cereal producer Philippe Camburet. It’s a game of communicating vessels. If organic receives more aid, conventional has less. The sector is also the major subject of environmentalist parties. This government does not dare to adhere to it frankly. »

Respect the EGalim law

These producers are not asking the State for exceptional aid, but just for it to keep its word. The EGalim law set a mandatory objective of 20% organic in collective catering. It reaches 7% today. They would also like the public authorities to pay them CAP aid on time. They should have received some in November, but by mid-June many were still waiting. Some have to borrow at 5% to buy seeds or pay their employees. They have no margin.

Stop the fees? Vincent Boursier, the Cocebi cereal grower, doesn’t even think about it. “I will never go back to handling dangerous products. And then, it would mean becoming dependent on pesticide suppliers. » His companion in misfortune Julien Bourgeois recalls that the farmers who founded, in Nitry, what was the first organic cereal cooperative in France in the 1980s had launched before a market even existed: “They have done to defend nature. » In Nitry, a new factory adjoins the silos. She will transform the oats into flakes starting this summer. The cooperative will become a processor and no longer just a supplier of raw materials. As one of its leaflets states: “Crises have always existed and will continue to exist. We must continue to move forward and find solutions. »

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