Organic farming in Brittany: collective self-organization in action

Véronique Lucas, rural sociologist, associate doctor at INRA Montpellier Personal archives

Text by: Sylvie Noël Follow

Brittany will host the World Congress of Organic Agriculture in September 2021. 2,000 delegates are expected in Rennes. It is the first time that this organic high mass organized every three years by the International Federation of Organic Farming Movements takes place in France. The opportunity to draw up an inventory of organic farming in Brittany with Véronique Lucas, rural sociologist, associate doctor at INRA in Montpellier. 


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RFI : Brittany has 3,000 organic farms today compared to 1,050 in 2009. How does it compare to other French regions

Véronique Lucas : Brittany is rather in the national average for the development of organic farming with a percentage of the share of the agricultural area of ​​7%, for 7.5% nationally. It is an intermediate region compared to the PACA region (Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur) which has the highest rate of organic development with 25% of the agricultural area. At the other end, in the former Champagne-Ardenne region, organic barely represents 3% of the surface. Two sectors stand out: dairy and vegetable production (market gardening and production of vegetables in the open field combined). 

Why are these two organic sectors at the forefront in Brittany? 

It is first of all a natural extension of the specific features of Breton agriculture, the 1st dairy region and the 1st region for the production of vegetables intended for the fresh market, especially on the northern coast. Regarding milk production, the Breton climate - favorable to the cultivation of grass - facilitated the conversion from conventional to organic. Switching from a conventional dairy system, generally based on corn (a plant demanding pesticides and fertilizers), to an organic dairy system means favoring the grasslands. The conversion is called "going to the grass". It is then a more complex management which is essential. Farmers need to appropriate or reclaim knowledge related to grasslands because there are fewer skilled agricultural technicians. It should be noted that the cultivation method based on the use of the meadow had very early supporters in Brittany. These include André Pochon. While corn was essential, from the 1960s, he continued on his Côtes d'Armor farm to feed his cows with grass. He formalized a method of grassland management and created an association: the study and development center for more autonomous agriculture in his department. This association then played a pioneering role in Brittany, then in the Great West and now on a national scale. During the development of organic farming, his experience facilitated the conversions of other farmers. 

Geographically, are there any specificities concerning the development of organic farming? 

There are two factors of geographic location: on the one hand the proximity of urban centers, Rennes and Vannes, because the proximity of cities offers more favorable conditions for the development of organic farming, due to the possibility of developing circuits short. On the other hand, there has been a more pronounced development of organic farming in areas with lower agronomic potential. This is the case in central Brittany or the country of Redon south of Ille et Vilaine. The modernization techniques which have a cost (fertilizers, etc ...) not making it possible to make these lands economically competitive, organic farming could develop there more easily.  

Has the development of organic farming been accompanied by an evolution in the economic network? 

The latest waves of organic farming development are accompanied in Brittany, by a stronger structuring in terms of sector, marketing of organic products. We see more and more conventional actors (for example cooperatives) who engage in the marketing of organic products. For these major players in the food industry, it becomes difficult to continue to exist without offering a range of organic products for distribution. An example: the organic pig sector where the development of organic has long been limited because switching to organic involved for breeders the combination of multiple professions: breeder, pork butcher, cutting and artisanal processing. This is no longer the case because agricultural cooperatives are engaged in the organic charcuterie sector, which allows breeders to convert to organic while benefiting from the cooperative's infrastructure.  

Has the arrival of organic farmers changed the sociology of the Breton agricultural population? 

In fact, there is great heterogeneity among organic farmers. Today 30% of young people who settle do not take over a family farm. In this 30%, half is not from the agricultural sector, the other is family. Among these new entrants, many have an organic farming project. But it is a small flow because the development of organic farming stems for a large part from conversions of conventional farmers. 

Since 2016, 2 out of 3 new organic certifications have resulted from conversion. Why this acceleration? 

There are many factors. For the dairy sector, conversion peaks correspond to economic crises. For a long time, this sector experienced strong public intervention, particularly at European level, with the quota policy which made it possible, at the cost of a production quota policy, to maintain a certain stability in the price of milk. But since 2007/2008, the gradual cessation of European quotas has resulted in volatility in the price of milk, to which has been added volatility in the prices of inputs (fertilizers, soya often bought to feed cows, etc.) . The dairy sector therefore experienced major crises in 2009 and 2015/2016, which caused waves of conversions because the higher price of organic milk also exhibits greater stability.

How is it that the price of organic milk is less volatile?

The volatility results from the internationalization of the conventional milk market. As far as organic milk is concerned, the smaller market is more in line with the national framework. In addition, in the organic milk sector, even if there are fluctuations, the state of the balance of power between producers and processors means that producers remain players in the sector for the time being. 

Regarding the role of organic milk producers, we must mention the history of this group of organic milk producers, created in 1994, thanks to the initiative of 6 farmers from Morbihan and Loire-Atlantique. 

The example of the birth of this group of dairy producers is very interesting, because it shows that one of the strengths of Brittany is the spirit of collective self-organization, which is not unique to the sector. agricultural, and also visible in associations. The development of organic farming, which has not benefited from a favorable context, whether on the part of politicians, research or Europe, has therefore relied heavily on the initiative of actors, d '' farmers self-organizing collectively or private agro-food businesses, more of a family type. Biolait is truly a very representative example of this capacity for collective self-organization. Originally, it was a small group of farmers from Morbihan and Loire-Atlantique who came up with the idea of ​​coming together to collect organic milk in order to strike a balance of power with the players in the agro -food. It was a pretty crazy bet to think that it would be possible to bring together organic dairy producers dispersed over the territory and make this bet of organic for everyone, everywhere. And here we recognize the illustration of a character of the Breton spirit. 

In Brittany, we know the weight of the FNSEA. Did this agricultural union hinder the development of organic farming

Throughout France, the FNSEA first opposed organic farming, because it was agricultural modernization that built and gave power and strength to this union. So the FNSEA has long been attached to this model of modern agriculture. In addition, the first players in organic farming did not come from the social base of the FNSEA. As a result, FNSEA first saw opponents in organic farmers. Today, she has a more moderate discourse since she has more and more organic farmers within her social base. A study carried out after the penultimate elections (6 years ago) to the chambers of agriculture showed that out of a hundred chambers of agriculture, almost all in the hands of the FNSEA, ten were governed by chamber presidents who were FNSEA members converted to organic. This is a sign that organic farming is becoming a trend that counts in the social base of the FNSEA. Besides, its discourse has evolved: the FNSEA now says that it recognizes organic, but in fact, it has turned the argument around to finally promote what it has always promoted by saying: "  We recognize organic, it has its place as all forms of agriculture  ”. It is a way of restoring legitimacy to the diversity of models and in particular to the one that it has always promoted. 

How easy is it for an organic farmer to acquire land? 

The land competition situation is the same for all farmers, but it is certain that access to land is more complicated for new entrants who do not take over a farm. It is among them that we find the most promoters of organic projects. They face a land market where the land is expensive and the subject of fierce competition. This reality constitutes an obstacle to the development of organic farming. 

Finally, let’s talk about this project to produce 24,000 organic eggs in Brittany. Is the industrial model not entering the organic sector ?

It should be remembered that the European Union wanted to establish a standard of organic farming at European level. This process resulted in lower requirements, with one particular case: the laying hen farms which have been subject to few restrictions. This is why we see the appearance of mega-farms of laying hens in Brittany, causing fluctuations in the price of organic eggs to the point of breaking the market. There are calls to raise the standards. This is a challenge facing organic farming: how can we standardize on a European scale a mode of production that wants to be linked to nature?

►Also read: Marie Rolland, organic market gardener: "It is a pride to feed people"

►Also listen: Organic is taking root in Brittany 

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