Little but scorn for indulgence of middle class

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The Independent Online
French people have two main responses when asked about "green" farming. The first is to say scornfully that all French farming is "green" because France, unlike Britain or the US, has mostly not gone in for "intensive" or "industrial" farming. The second is to dismiss it as little more than a fashionable hobby for middle-class people with nothing better to do.

"Green farming" nevertheless has a following in France, though it accounts for a very small proportion of the total. The biggest farmers' union, the FNSEA, said that between 1 and 2 per cent of farmers might practise some aspects of "green" farming, but that very few used no chemical pesticides at all. Agriculture ministry statistics give the proportion of farmers meeting the strict EU criteria for "green" farming as only three in 1,000 farmers.

This, however, is still quite a large area of land - roughly equivalent to the surface area of orchards producing eating apples. And while the number of farmers registered as practising "green" farming has remained almost static since 1990, at around 3,700 (although there was a dip down to 2,600 in the early Nineties), the area of land farmed ecologically has increased by 10 per cent to 60,000 hectares. There is also a tendency for "green" farmers to be highly specialised, whether in particular sorts of livestock farming, market-gardening or viticulture.

These figures may, however, be deceptive. It is said, for instance, that some "green" farmers choose not to register as such, some because they do not meet all the criteria, some because they regard the 3,000-franc annual registration fee as too expensive and the bureaucracy burdensome.

For all the popular scorn meted out to the idea of "l'agriculture biologique", there is a proven demand for "green" agricultural products in France, and it was growing well before the problem of British beef emerged. Consumption increased by 5 per cent between 1993 and 1994, and continues to rise. The Paris area has a dozen "green" markets, compared with only three, five years ago, while regular markets all over France often include at least one "bio" stall and many large supermarket chains offer "ecologically" produced vegetables.

The problem is that production does not match demand and the wholesale network is poorly developed. The most optimistic estimates suggest that between 2 and 3 per cent of fruit, vegetables and cereals in France could be biologically produced by the year 2000, as against 1 per cent today.