France, Going Organic

Organic Radishes

Organic French Radishes

The organic industry is finding a home – and a burgeoning market – in the land of haute cuisine.

Last post I discussed the French “diet,” or lack thereof. I contrasted health-obsessed calorie-counting America with croissant-loving wine-drinking France, and delved into some of the reasons for France’s better health despite the tradition of fat and carbs. Ultimately the piece concluded with a question about France’s dietary future: with the influx of industrial agricultural techniques and food systems, fast food, supermarkets, and processed foods, will France be able to maintain its healthy, fresh bread-loving lifestyle, or will the influx of easily and cheaply obtained packaged foods begin to reflect the American trend towards obesity?

We all know that empirically, France is healthier. There are stricter laws that prohibit GMO’s and a host of other additives, chemicals, and artificial ingredients in food items. Their obesity rate is conservatively half that of the United States, and they consume on average less sugar and more vegetables than Americans. Their food system itself tends towards a fresher, healthier model, featuring local markets and heavily subsidizing farming (although according to many farmers, not enough). But the reality of globalization and economic centralization is hitting French food hard. Global capitalism is reshaping the market to favor efficiency over quality, which means that mass-produced industrial products win; the key to mass-produced industrial products is a host of mechanical production techniques, pesticides, fertilizers, and preservatives that have all been proven to detract from health. Additionally, processed foods taste good. They are loaded with sugar, cheap, and addictive. They’re fast, cheap, and easy: you can buy a frozen meal at the supermarket, heat it up, and eat it all within thirty minutes. Will France be able to resist these unhealthy food trends, or will its strong tradition and culture of culinary excellence be enough to maintain artisanal emphasis in its food system?

Frozen Food USA

The modern supermarket – frozen food aisle. From vegetables to entire meals, this is one of the most popular processed food types in the U.S.

The obesity rate is rising in France. But so is organic farming. A projected industry, “organic” or “bio” is hitting France with vigor. Land dedicated to organic farmland reached 1 million hectares in 2013, 3.6% of total farmland, up from 1.8% in 2010. Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll stated aims to double organic farmland by 2017 in order to meet growing demand in a 4 billion euro industry, one that has grown steadily even through the economic recession. Starting this year, the government raised subsidies for organic farmers from 90 million to 160 million euros. But is the dedication to build this emerging market based on concern for national health, or national economic success?

The word “organic” in the U.S. has become a kind of buzzword used in branding and marketing. Foods that are not healthy whatsoever – such as processed cereals, cookies, and candies – can technically be marketed as organic if all their ingredients meet government criteria. The industry has reached nearly 70 million dollars and continues to grow annually. Will France see an infiltration and exploitation of the idea of “organic food” into its supermarkets, processed food industry, and even fast food restaurants?

O Organics

“O Organics,” a popular brand (by U.S. supermarket giant Safeway) that uses “organic” as its marketing strategy for a variety of processed and pre-packaged foods

And what comes after organic? If this trend is finally reaching French soil, what’s next? There’s already a gluten free aisle in my local Carrefour, and a bakery by my school offers gluten free baguettes. Could France’s once-impenetrable cultural borders finally be invaded by American diet fads?

Of course, there is the flipside. Organic and bio products in France could be seen as a reaction to the “malbouffe” (junk food) and fast food brought by American culture. Arguably, organic does tend to mean a bit more in France, since it has banned a considerable list of preservatives, additives, colorings, pesticides, and various chemicals that are still legal in the U.S. (and pretty much only there) and the EU has recently tightened regulations on organic farming. And it’s true – when I eat a Kit-Kat bar or Frosted Flake cereal here in France, it tastes different to me and, to be honest, not as good. Besides, why would I go for a packaged sweet when I can walk five minutes and have access to four local bakeries with an abundance of freshly-made sweets and baked goods? This is the France of the past, but maybe not the France of the future – as budgets tighten, those cheap processed foods look more and more appealing, and as work hours expand in response to these financial difficulties, suddenly there is less time to stroll the neighborhood for that daily baguette.

So I guess the answer is time. Where will organic farming go? Will it follow the trend-based, advertising-obsessed and economically-driven American form? Or will it truly be an antidote to the invasion of cheap food that the global capitalist system favors?

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