Organic is booming but is bio a healthier diet?

Organic products have never been so popular, with latest 2016 figures showing more shoppers going “bio”, the opening of new specialists all over France, a rise in the range and amount of organic products in supermarkets and the number of farms converting from conventional methods.

21 June 2017
By Jane Hanks

Florent Guhl, the director of Agence Bio, a public body created by the Ministry of Agriculture which promotes and develops organic farming in France, says he believes buying organic is now an established trend which will continue to grow.

“I am very confident about the future and I think consumers are now convinced of the virtues of buying organically and that the rest will now follow, even though we will need time to help and persuade enough farmers to convert, and to produce enough.”

A study for Agence Bio found that in 2016, seven out of 10 shoppers bought organic produce regularly; the number of producers rose by 12% from 2015 and an extra 16% of land was turned over to organic. The year also saw sales rise to €7billion from €5.76bn in 2015.

While organic farming remains marginal with just 5.7% of farming land given to organic production, France is in third position in Europe behind Spain and Italy with the UK sixth. 

Eight out of 10 shoppers buy bio in supermarkets, a third use specialised shops which include the Biocoop chain of organic supermarkets, 28% from the market and the rest buy directly from organic producers.

Biocoop itself saw its turnover increase by 25% in 2016. It now has 431 shops with 52 opening last year and 60 planned for this year.

It is now common for supermarkets to have an organic food section and Carrefour, for example, boasts 800 different products on its shelves.

So, is supermarket bio the same as organic brought from the local market? Mr Guhl says yes, when we are talking about food produced without the use of chemicals and genetically modified ingredients.

“If a product is labelled organic with the European green leaf or the French AB it has been subjected to the same rules and has to have 95% of its ingredients organic with a possible 5% from a tightly controlled authorised list where its inclusion is necessary and there are no organic substitutes.

“The difference is they tend to be more industrialised and less likely to come from a small or local producer.

“People think supermarkets will be cheaper but this is not necessarily true and shoppers should look carefully at the prices.”

However, he welcomes the introduction of organic food into supermarkets because it makes it more accessible to a larger number of people.

Fruit and veg are still the most popular purchases closely followed by dairy and then eggs with other groceries and meat following behind.

Cosmetic products are also popular with a smaller proportion opting for organic clothes.

Cost has long been one of the factors dissuading people from choosing organic, but studies show organic consumers are not necessarily richer than those who do not.

Mr Guhl said: “It is more a question of education. It is a lifestyle choice where people decide to put more of their budget into their food bill.

“For years the proportion spent on feeding a family has been in decline but we are beginning to see a change in values and a reversal of this trend. In particular many young families change shopping habits when the first baby comes along and they want to give that child the best start in life.”

Agence Bio says the higher cost is due to several factors: crops may be smaller, animals take longer to develop, more space is needed, organic feed is used, more manpower is required...

Organic farms are also on a smaller scale without the economic benefits of mass production and inspection and certification costs are high.

But eating bio does not need to be much more expensive as costs are cut when you eat more seasonal fruit, when veg has fewer food miles and is transported shorter distances – and also as organic shoppers eat fewer processed foods and, often, less meat.

Health claims

Agence Bio found that health was the main reason people gave for choosing organic food – although there is no scientific proof that organic food is the healthier option.

A long-term ongoing nationwide study across France and the biggest of its kind is hoping to come up with some conclusive results.

The NutriNet-Santé health study was started in 2009 and has 150,000 volunteer adults who give regular information on their food intake, health, lifestyle and physical activity via email questionnaires.

Government sponsored, the study’s remit into the relationship between nutrition and health is large, including looking into the effect of organic food on health and the environment.

Lead scientist Emmanuelle Kesse-Guyot said: “Around 40,000 of our volunteers are taking part in my area of study which began in 2014.

“We know that farm workers using pesticides suffer a higher level of serious diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s than the general population but we don’t yet know what exposure to tiny amounts over several years in our food has on the body.

“We have already compared urine samples of organic and non-organic consumers and there are far fewer pesticide traces in people who eat organic food.”

First results are being co-ordinated now for publication later in the year, though one part of the study – that found a link between non-organic food and obesity – has already appeared in the British Journal of Nutrition.

Mrs Kesse-Guyot said they compared profiles of organic and non-organic consumers within a group which had a better than average healthy diet – meaning they ate a lot of fruit and vegetables – and found those who ate ‘bio’ had a tendency to put on less weight so “pesticides may disturb the body’s metabolism leading to weight gain”.

Despite there being no definitive research linking pesticides to serious diseases, she feels it is preferable to avoid them: “There are hypotheses that a mixture of different pesticides consumed over the years can be highly toxic. We will have to wait for some time until we know for sure there are links but, as a precaution, it is preferable to consume fewer pesticides.”

The NutriNet-Santé study is still seeking volunteers to join their cohorte (long-term study group). Volunteers will complete questionnaires on their food habits, health, measurements, physical activity and lifestyle (www.etude-nutrinet-sante.fr)

HAVING been farming organically for the past 55 years, the Pozzer family had a stall at France’s very first organic market, at Villeneuve-sur-Lot in 1975 and Gilbert Pozzer is now 81.

He and wife Claudette at the Ferme bio de Crozefond at St Aubin (Lot-et-Garonne) opted out when other farmers were just starting to use intensive methods. It was a matter of principal.

Son, Vincent, who now runs the farm with his two brothers and their three wives, told Connexion he was proud his parents refused to follow the others. “It was very difficult. Their neighbours and friends said they were mad but my father understood that putting chemicals on the land would kill it in 20 years and he was right.

“There are no more worms in the soil and no aeration. Now those same people respect what we are doing and also see we can make more money than they can. Conventional farmers are paid 15 centimes for a kilo of wheat, we can ask for 40.”

The higher prices come from higher labour costs but he says his products give greater value: “Our wheat has twice as much nutritional value as wheat from conventional farming, so you don’t have to buy as much to get better benefits.”

Milk from their 100 cows is made into cheese and dairy products at the farm and 80 pigs give fresh meat in winter and charcuterie in summer.

Farm-grown spelt wheat makes bread, pastries, pizzas and pasta. They also grow strawberries and raspberries and make herb-flavoured sorbets including rosemary, mint and lavender – and are the only organic farm in France to grow and press evening primroses for their oil.

Selling on Wednesday mornings at Villeneuve-sur-Lot market and on Thursdays at Bordeaux, they also sell direct from the farm and recently began to supply Biocoop organic supermarkets and other independents.

However, Vincent Pozzer says they do not want to change the way they work: “We are in a good position as  we can sell everything we produce and there is more demand than we can provide for.

“There is growing competition from both organic and major supermarkets but we are resisting the temptation to expand as we think it important to stay small to work directly with our customers at both farm and market.

“We also want to make sure we can continue to produce food for our animals and we don’t want to grow just to satisfy demand.”

While optimistic about bio’s future, he says there are still too few French organic farmers: “We can do a lot more. More consumers want organic food but it is sad to see a lot of it coming from countries like Spain, potatoes from Israel and dried fruits from Pakistan. We can grow our own organic food. That needs to change.”

Pioneer farm is still going strong

HAVING been farming organically for the past 55 years, the Pozzer family had a stall at France’s very first organic market, at Villeneuve-sur-Lot in 1975 and Gilbert Pozzer is now 81.

He and wife Claudette at the Ferme bio de Crozefond at St Aubin (Lot-et-Garonne) opted out when other farmers were just starting to use intensive methods. It was a matter of principal.

Son, Vincent, who now runs the farm with his two brothers and their three wives, told Connexion he was proud his parents refused to follow the others. “It was very difficult. Their neighbours and friends said they were mad but my father understood that putting chemicals on the land would kill it in 20 years and he was right.

“There are no more worms in the soil and no aeration. Now those same people respect what we are doing and also see we can make more money than they can. Conventional farmers are paid 15 centimes for a kilo of wheat, we can ask for 40.”

The higher prices come from higher labour costs but he says his products give greater value: “Our wheat has twice as much nutritional value as wheat from conventional farming, so you don’t have to buy as much to get better benefits.”

Milk from their 100 cows is made into cheese and dairy products at the farm and 80 pigs give fresh meat in winter and charcuterie in summer.

Farm-grown spelt wheat makes bread, pastries, pizzas and pasta. They also grow strawberries and raspberries and make herb-flavoured sorbets including rosemary, mint and lavender – and are the only organic farm in France to grow and press evening primroses for their oil.

Selling on Wednesday mornings at Villeneuve-sur-Lot market and on Thursdays at Bordeaux, they also sell direct from the farm and recently began to supply Biocoop organic supermarkets and other independents.

However, Vincent Pozzer says they do not want to change the way they work: “We are in a good position as  we can sell everything we produce and there is more demand than we can provide for.

“There is growing competition from both organic and major supermarkets but we are resisting the temptation to expand as we think it important to stay small to work directly with our customers at both farm and market.

“We also want to make sure we can continue to produce food for our animals and we don’t want to grow just to satisfy demand.”

While optimistic about bio’s future, he says there are still too few French organic farmers: “We can do a lot more. More consumers want organic food but it is sad to see a lot of it coming from countries like Spain, potatoes from Israel and dried fruits from Pakistan. We can grow our own organic food. That needs to change.”

Fair-price bio juice is on way

FAIR-PRICE label C’est qui le patron? is looking to launch an organic apple juice after the recent launch of fruit juice and pizza and the success of its milk where buyers help set the price.

The brand, known as La Marque du Consommateur, pays farmers a fair price after agreeing methods of production with consumers. Its debut launch of milk in Carrefour and then other supermarkets saw 11million litres sold in seven months at €0.99.

Now it has launched apple juice in Carrefour after consumers agreed to pay €1.62 a litre for French apples, with no added ingredients. Strong demand for an organic version could see one launched in November.

A pizza sold in Carrefour and Inter­marché is based on a price of €4.49 for French flour, AOP raclette and emmental cheese, Provençal tomatoes, and olive oil but no olives.

Readers can join the voting panel at tinyurl.com/zrb6mhz to decide the butter and apple compote they prefer.

Labelled with love: know your organic symbols

There are many labels attached to organic products, some of which are stricter than the official European label.  Here are some of the most common ones.

European and AB logo The European logo superseded the original French AB logo when it was introduced but both are still used as the AB logo is better known. The product must be 100% organic unless it is a processed product where up to 5% of non-organic ingredients are authorised, because they are not available organically. The logo is compulsory for organic pre-packaged food produced within the EU. 

Bio-Cohérence was created to produce a stricter set of guidelines than the European logo. It is controlled by the same independent inspectors. Farms must be 100% organic and cannot be mixed with conventional farming, they are limited in size, there are animal welfare stipulations, 100% French production and if there are ingredients such as sugar which must come from abroad they must be both organic and fair trade.

Biopartenaire products must be both organic and Fair Trade with stipulations which go beyond the requirements of many other Fair Trade labels. It was founded 12 years ago by organic producers who wanted to conserve their values and avoid what they thought would be the inevitable pressures as demand for organic food grew.

Nature et Progrès has existed since 1964 but decided to remain independent when the European label was introduced and so is not recognised as officially organic. Synthetic chemicals are not allowed within their rules and they have additional criteria such as limiting the size of a farm, welfare of both animals and  employees and selling locally. 900 producers are signed up and their products are sold in organic specialist shops, direct at the farm and at markets and include both food and cosmetics.

Ecocert Cosmos Organic. There are no legal requirements for organic cosmetics but private regulating bodies across Europe have introduced their own label. Ecocert in France, together with organisations like the Soil Association in the UK introduced this logo in January. A minimum of 20% (or 10% for rinse-off products) by weight must be organic and products have a minimum of 95% of plant-based ingredients in the formula.

Ensemble-solidaires is a Biocoop label (on 700 products) which goes further than organic by also taking into account environmental factors with less packaging, fair trade, animal welfare, long-term contracts with producers, fair prices paid to farmers and with stricter criteria than the European organic label as GMOs and non-organic flavourings are not permitted and most farms are 100% organic.

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