“The French AMAP: Organic or not? Part I: Organic, What does that Mean? A Short History” (ENG)

The original French version of this article was published in 2007.
The French AMAP : Organic or not?

The content of this text owns a lot to the experience gained within the AMAP1 network of the Midi-Pyrénées region. However, these analyses and viewpoints, even though reflecting a state of mind that is largely shared within the network, should not in any way be considered as an expression of a common position adopted by the whole network, and should rather be attributed solely to their author. This text can be found online, in its original French version, on the website of the Midi-Pyrénées AMAP network : www.amapreseau-mp.org.

A recurring question goes as follows: are the products delivered in the AMAPs organic ? To put it into different words: are the producers delivering within the AMAP system organic farmers or not ? Beyond the largely justified concern of the consumer for the quality of the products she is purchasing, there are also the worries felt by many farmers involved into the AMAP network: they fear they could not identify anymore with a movement that would be welcoming producers without paying attention to the basics. Moreover, beside the AMAP network, some organic farmers are afraid of a kind of unfair competition which would be led by the AMAPs, where distributed products are claimed to be organic without any certification required from the producers.

Yet the motivations driving the defenders of organic farming are absolutely convergent with those of the initiators of the AMAP system. On the one hand the actors of organic farming are experiencing a deep crisis identity (this expression is not an exaggeration). On the other hand, the instigators of the AMAPs are often having difficulties positioning themselves as far as organic farming is concerned.

1- Organic: What Does this Mean? A Short History

At the start, over 50 years ago, pioneers cried for a natural mode of production, free from any chemical fertilizer and from any man-made pesticide, respectful of Earth and of the health of consumers. There was, within this movement, a huge diversity of inspirations and practices. Nevertheless, the term organic farming established itself. Insofar as these farmers had often to sell their production to intermediaries who could hardly guarantee the product to the consumers, the farmers had to give themselves regional, national or international labels, such as Nature et Progrès, Biofranc, Biobourgogne, Demeter, and so on. For each label, they built up, sometimes with the participation of consumers (such was the case with Nature et Progrès), a sheet of specifications and a control system, whose financial charge always rested upon the producer. The product simply carried a label sticker, from one end of the chain production to the other end. The demanding consumer could refer to the various sheets of specifications to make her mind up.

Meanwhile some organic producers were also working without label. They were directly selling their product as organic to the consumers on the only basis of their own bona fide, whereas the labeled producers were often selling a part of their production through the traditional supply chains. The labeled producers were forced to respect the prices and the conditions of the conventional food systems, since they had no opportunity to find an outlet in the organic supply chains.

The economic background for this evolution was an underlying continuous fall of energy production prices (which kept falling all along the XXth Century), combined with the agriculture industrialization process, the rupture of local economic networks, the overstretching of transformation and distribution circuits, and also the mechanization within the all branch. The massive use of fossile energy, of chemical devices, and machines, generated a situation of permanent food excess on a global scale, a major falling in the production prices for the farm products (in a proportion such that one year ago, in 2006, French farmers were still selling wheat at the price similar to the price of firewood !). This led to the accession of agribusiness industries and the hypermarket distribution to a total hegemony on the marketing of farmers’ products. Stuck into chronic crisis, farmers disappeared massively because they were not sufficiently rewarded for their work in the farms. That is because when there are abundant food supplies on the market, excesses cannot be sold, an it is then easy to curve the prices down.

All along this stretch of time, until our days, the political power has been taking advantage of this evolution, planning and regulating it. This was done first in order to « free up » the farm workforce, during a period when burgeoning industries were starving for additional manpower. Then, everybody kept doing the same just to please the « Growth for growth » -dogma, out of blindness and perversion. In every corner of the world, the collapse of small-scale farming has been counting quite evidently as the primary reason for mass unemployment during the last 30 years. However, this has never been an issue neither in the speeches of politicians, nor in those of economists or intellectuals. It is invariantly only the lack of industrial investment, which is to be blamed, as if unemployment would not precisely be the consequence of this type of investment.

Yet one man’s meat is another man’s poison: upon the ruins of the peasant world, financiers and industries built within two generations a « new agriculture », which is able to deliver grain ad libitum, for a price close to the cost of oil, that is to say for almost nothing. The agribusiness complex relies on this type of agriculture, which is its best customer and its main supplier.

Since the early 50s, the selling has become the number one issue for all the farmers, and managing the surplus has been the key concern for French and European farming policies. In such a situation, every single commercial argument is worth being taken into account, and even though commercial, labels became a survival kit for the few peasants who wanted to resist chemicals. Labels thus played an important role in the maintenance of organic farmers onto the agribusiness market. Yet, on the other hand, they turned out to be unable to pull organic farming out of a marginal position. They proved even more unefficient in redirecting the course of the liquidation of farmers and of the chemicalization of farming.

Then, in the 80s, the problems of reliability of some labels emerged (“fake organic” scandals), trust abuse from some import traders and industrial actors, when not by some producers themselves. The State, which had not been interested in organic until then, decided to create an official label, at the beginning of the 90s. It settled its own expert commissions in order to write down a new sheet of specifications, and decided that certification would not be obtained from its own anti-fraud services but rather from supposedly “independent” companies (that is to say from private corporations). In order to fund this system, the most convenient solution was to preserve what was existing, that is to say to rely on producer –funded certifications. Then it sent the “AB” logo (AB stands for Agriculture biologique, Organic Agriculture in French) to the INPI (INPI stands for Institut national de la propriété intellectuel, National Institute for intellectual property rights). The “AB” logo has since become an emblem for organic farming. Some labels disappeared then, some survived, as Nature & Progrès and Demeter, because of their members’ confidence in particular aspects of the sheet of specifications, or due to a concern of preserving their autonomy. Indeed, in sight of the composition of the official commissions, it was quite clear that producers were not any more in control of the content of the official requirements. The producers who were labeled thus had to make a decision between choosing the official label or remaining faithful to their original label, by thus renouncing the official recognition.

We can only remain unconvinced when confronted to the “independence” principle claimed by the certificating companies: have we ever seen a retailer who would be independent from his client? As long as their task is restricted to trustworthy small scale producers’ certification, as long as the certification market is expanding, the system seems reliable, but what happens on the day when the market is shrinking, when a certifier has to choose between punishing a big client, loosing a market share and firing employees or eyes shutting? Isn’t this so-called independence an exclusivity of the civil servants, of the Fraud Control officers in this particular case? How can we accept that the State is delegating to corporate structures and abandoning to concurrence hazards police and justice tasks, regarding regulations which are supposedly its “property”? How not to see that these detective agencies, which are currently in front of wide opening gigantic markets are eventually reaching the statute of multinational corporations. They are certifying practically everything, even Agriculture raisonnée for example, which means “responsible farming”, a concept coined by the most powerful Farmers’ Union in France to avoid going organic. It requires only the use of reasonably low input. Sooner or later their capital will be owned by banks or pension funds: what about the control efficiency once both the controller and the controlled – a businessman from the processing industries for example – are part of the same portfolio?

Still, the creation of an official label was perceived as a consecration by a lot of producers, who felt relieved to gain at last some official recognition. However, due to the lack of any support policy, the AB label was not empowered to generate a significant growth of the organic production. Even worse, it was not able to reverse the rural depopulation. But one has good reasons to believe it was not the main goal of the state when it set up this label.

(to be continued)

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