Category Archives: agriculture

Sustainable soy: Greenwash scam or timely reminder?

The fuss about sustainable soybeans (civil society attacking the Roundtable on Sustainable Soy as greenwash) actually serves an important purpose: to remind us that 80% of the meat and poultry we eat in France is actually fed with GM animal feed, mostly soy-based.

France prides itself on the quality of its meat and poultry, and there are a plethora of “appellation d’orgine controlé”s to testify to the importance of terroir and the way the animals are raised and fed. That, plus the fact that it’s illegal to grow GM soybeans in France would make it easy to assume that so long as you purchase your meat from a nice, artisanal butcher, and ensure that the provenance of the meat is France, that you would be doing your bit for the family’s health. Wrong. Just look at the price differential between organic and non-organic meat and poultry. A “free-range” chicken from a decent butcher costs around 15 euros.  The organic variety costs at least 20 euros. That is a much bigger price hike compared with any other product – fruit, vegetables, dairy, coffee, flour, chocolate etc. Therein lies the catch. Sustainable soy is an intractable problem, simply because the quantities needed are too immense and the costs of conversion too high. Supermarket chains which, in 2010, rushed to declare their imminent shift to sustainable palm oil in their products by 2012, had nothing to say about  sustainable soybeans. It’s the big taboo subject for any supply chain person who is now stuck with a CSR brief. There’s basically no solution to this problem: most of the world’s meat is raised on GM soybeans.

Greenpeace diagram of animal food chain

Hence the civil society scorn for the Round Table on Responsible Soy, which groups corporate members such as France’s Carrefour, Marks and Spencer, Unilever, Ahold (a Dutch supermarket chain), BP International and Shell International. Other members include companies driving soy expansion and GM crops such as Cargill, Bunge, Monsanto and Syngenta.

Over sixty NGOs signed an open letter to the participants of the Round Table on Responsible Soy calling for it to be abandoned, arguing that the roundtable encourages soy monocultures which have a negative impact on biodiversity in ecocystems such as the Amazon, Cerrado, and Chaco.

Meanwhile, Brazil announced in April 2010 that it was creating its own sustainable soy label, called Soja Plus.

Organic sharecroppers’ collective launches in southern France

Barjac, scene of the 2008 film “Our children will accuse us” which celebrates the town mayor’s decision to convert the school canteen to organics while documenting a massive public health scandal linked to pesticide use in the local farm community.

Inspired by the success of his school canteen initiative, Edouard Chaulet, the mayor, has launched a new project this year which he claims is a world first. Using an innovative social financing scheme pioneered with association Terre de Liens, he has made available a 120-hectare plot of land for organic farmers to rent and farm collectively. The aim: to increase land surface area in the Gard region of France farmed organically to help close the gap between demand and supply.

Chaulet first approached local authorities to rent land from them.
“The obstacle to local organics is that we don’t have enough farmers who are convinced by this mode of production, which would in addition work to stop rural desertification. And when we find farmers, we aren’t able to set them up because they don’t own any land,” he told Libération in an interview.

Then he approached “Terre de Liens” to raise funds using an innovative shareholder model based on a social compact which offers no dividends, but tax breaks for investors who stay in for at least 5 years.

The association, created in 2006 in partnership with bank La Nef, collects savings from citizens and companies to buy farms and then rent them out exclusively to organic farmers.

It has a “Finansol” label, which means that it guarantees to savers that their money will be invested in projects with a social purpose.
As of May 2010, the Terre de Liens association had 4,700 shareholders for a capital of 12.5 million euros. Thanks to this capital, 45 farmers, with an average age of 35 years, were able to set themselves up and 26 farms were purchased.

Chaulet’s project was the most ambitious ever seen by Terre de Liens.  The initial investment: one million euros plus 500,000 euros for restoring the farm buildings and other work related to irrigation.
The 120-hectare plot will be farmed by a collective, and tenants have to share tractors, animals, water rights and buildings. Furthermore, there is a time lag of 2 years before the farm produce can obtain an organic label.

Land in the Gard region of France costs around 6,000 euros per hectare. For the “sharecroppers” of La Grange des Pres, the cost of renting a hectare is 50 euros per year for the first 2 years, and then 73 euros in subsequent years.

“The Common Agricultural Policy (of the EU) forces our farmers relentlessly towards large monoculture farms. These big intensive farms destroy the countryside, make the soil sterile and the water undrinkable. We need a diverse and local agriculture, not thousands of tons of cereals!” said Sjoerd Wartena, president of Terre de Liens.

Europe faces new challenge from one-million petition on GM crops

The battle between members states and Brussels has entered a new phase since the summer. Here’s a brief update:

July 2010: The European Commission moots a proposal which, if approved, will give the 27 member states freedom to decide for themselves whether to allow cultivation of GM crops.

September 2010 – Agriculture Ministers of the 27 debate the proposal. Big agricultural nations – France, Germany, Italy and Spain – are opposed, arguing that this opens the way to undermining the Common Agricultural Policy. Smaller countries such as the Netherlands are in favour. Commission fails to achieve a majority. Debate scheduled to resume Oct 14.

September 2010 – French Eurodeputy José Bové calls press conference to accuse Hungarian scientist Diana Banati – who chairs the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – of a conflict of interest. EFSA is tasked with providing the European Commission with scientific advice on genetically modified foods. Banati failed to disclose that she had previously sat on the board of directors of the International Life Science Institute, a pro GM lobby which includes among its members Monsanto and Bayer.

October 2010 – Greenpeace announces that it has collected over one million signatures from across Europe urging the European Commission to freeze the introduction of GM crops. This initiative – the first of its kind – seeks to benefit from a new clause in the Lisbon Treaty which states that if at least one million Europeans resident in a significant number of member states invite the Commission to make a legislative proposal in a domain of its competence, it should honour the citizen’s intiative. The Commission now has 4 months to respond, but its president can say the ruling which concerns the initiative is still being negotiated between the European Parliament and its member states.

What’s behind the Sustainable Palm Oil label

Understanding what is behind certification for concepts like fair trade, organic agriculture, organic cosmetics and more broadly anything which claims to be “responsible” or “sustainable” is at the heart of the ongoing dialogue among consumers, retailers and manufacturers. Yet what goes on in the supply chain is only dimly understood by even the most well-informed consumers. Unless some brave soul starts developing “supply chain tourism”, it is unlikely that we will ever get a firm grasp on exactly what we are paying for beyond the feel good concepts of saving an orangutan or two somewhere in Borneo.

So palm oil has experienced a big shift in consumer perception this year due to successful lobbying efforts of Greenpeace and a fall-out in the European Union over the health risk contained in high levels of saturated fat contained in Nutella, which has been abruptly de-throned from its place as a symbol and repository of happy childhood memories throughout Europe.

Industries which rely heavily on palm oil as a cheap input for their products – mostly food and consumer items – are responding to consumer pressure to “clean up” their palm oil supply chains, and a number of solutions are available today.

Here’s a short primer on currently available certification which should help to de-mystify what you are getting when you buy a product which says “sustainable palm oil”.

Sustainable palm oil producers are grouped together in a body called Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)  which was set up in 2003 and brings together growers, processors, food companies, investors and NGOs. The members represent around 40% of palm oil producers., so they can’t be said to represent critical mass in the industry.

The RSPO defined the principles and criteria of sustainable palm oil in 2005:
•    No more replacement of ‘High Conservation Value Areas’ for new plantations
•    Respect for the righs of local people
•    Respect labour laws

RSPO has approved 3 supply chain models for RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil:

1.    Segregated  – Most stringent option: sustainable palm oil is kept segregated through the chain. Mixing is possible only with other RSPO Certified Palm Oil. This is the only certification that allows retailers to claim that the product “contains” sustainable palm oil.
2.    Mass Balance – Sustainable palm oil is followed through the chain. Mixing with conventional palm oil is possible provided this is administratively possible. Retailers can claim that the product “supports” the production of RSPO sustainable palm oil.
3.    Book and Claim – Chain is not followed. End-users buy certificiates directly from the producer via web-based trading platform (premium for sustainable palm oil is currently valued at $13 per tonne). Allows buyers to claim that their product “supports” the production of RSPO sustainable palm oil.

So basically when you buy a product that carries either of those claims: ie “contains” or “supports the production of sustainable palm oil”, you will be getting one of the above three options.

Green holiday ideas for the summer

Summer has finally arrived in Paris, and it is truly glorious. One of the highlights of the past few weeks was the “greening” of the Champs Elysees on a holiday weekend Sunday: organized by France’s Jeunes Agriculteurs (Young Farmers), it was a heady display of farm production and biodiversity. Overnight, 8,000 plots of earth were transported to central Paris, and around 150,000 plants were installed – including 650 fully grown trees – at a cost of 4.2 million euros. Here’s a slideshow which features snaps of the visiting First Lady and President: Carla and “Sarko”.

Come June 1, and the only question on everyone’s lips is: “Vous partez quand?” (When are you leaving?)

So for those who haven’t already decided, here are some suggestions:

The lovely Atlantic coast island of Noirmoutier, home to fabled sea salt and tiny potatoes, now boasts a tempting high-end camping site called La Guérinière. Think luxury tents safari-style transported to a saltwater, pine-forested environment shot through by a fresh Atlantic breeze. Set in five hectares of sand dunes and pines by the sea, you can rent a tipi for 4 people for 129 euros/weekend or up to 650 euros/week.

2010 is UN Year of Biodiversity, and the CNRS scientific research centre in French Guyana is opening its doors for the first time this summer to allow visitors to share in France’s biggest natural reserve in the heart of the tropical rainforest.

For more information, check out the scientific travel section of the website.

Pesticide lobby triumphs in French parliament

Last month, just one week prior to the passage of the Grenelle 2 legislation (eviscerated beyond recognition) on the environment, a parliamentary commission on science and technology published a 200-page report on “Pesticides and Health” which warned the government against a too-brutal reduction of pesticide use in France because this could precipitate “a complete breakdown of our economy” ,“a probable reduction in productivity”, “an increase in commodity prices” and “the possible disappearance of numerous fruits and vegetables”.

The stunning conclusion is: “No scientific study today can make a human link between consuming foods produced by conventional agriculture which uses phytopharmaceutical products and the incidence of illness and disease.”

This of course flies in the face of the spirit and the text of the Grenelle, which called for a 50% reduction in pesticide use by 2018.

François Veillerette, who heads the MDRGF (an NGO that lobbies against pesticide use) told Libération: “The agro-industrial system which favours shareholders and bankers and which makes a farm disappear every 20 minutes in France has gained the upper hand over environmental and health concerns.”

2010 is the era of “ecoloscepticisme” and a reactionary backlash.

As we edge closer to the season of delicious summertime fruits and vegetables, it is worth taking a minute to recall which ones are high on the list of produce which contains dangerously high concentrations of pesticides.

The Daily Green recently published an updated 2010 version of  “The New Dirty Dozen: 12 Foods to Eat Organic” and there were surprises for me, notably the arrival of blueberries at number 5: “blueberries are treated with as many as 52 pesticides, making them one of the dirtiest berries on the market.”

Among the top 12 are celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, nectarines, spinach, potatoes and cherries.

And here’s a trailer for the documentary “The Idiot Cycle”, a Canadian/French documentary which focuses on the six big chemical companies (BASF, Bayer, Astrazenecca, Monsanto, Dow Chemical and Dupont) which produce cancer-causing chemicals and are also invested in and develop cancer treatments.

Food for thought as we ponder the collapse of the European Union under the collective weight of ballooning national deficits. For how much longer is the current economic system of creating “economic goods” such as poor health, polluted waterways and toxic soils going to persist?

France expected to ban bluefin tuna

France is expected to announce a ban on trade of overfished bluefin tuna in the coming weeks, according to a report in Le Monde this week. But it hopes to calm the fury of the fishing lobby by negotiating with Brussels a stay of 12-18 months before that ban comes into effect, as well as re-training subsidies for out of work fishermen and an exclusive zone for small-scale line fishermen who would be exempt from the ban. Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo also hopes to retain the option of being able to reverse the ban if fish stocks reconstitute.

The government is divided over the form the ban will take, with Borloo favouring the more restrictive inscription on Annex 1 of the CITES list – the convention ensuring the survival of threatened species –  while the Agriculture and Fisheries Minister favours Annex 2, which allows for export quotas.

France’s decision will probably shift the European Union in the same direction, thereby boosting chances of mustering the two-thirds majority needed at Doha, Qatar, where the 175 member countries of the CITES will meet in March.

The French government has been slow on the uptake on this issue, compared with restaurants and supermarkets which have enforced their own bluefish tuna bans in the past year. Michelin-starred chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon have led the charge, taking the tuna off their menus, while supermarket chains Auchan and Carrefour have done the same, substituting their shelves with other species such as mackerel and scad.

Bees thrive in Paris – more biodiversity, fewer pesticides

Hives on the rooftop of the Grand Palais in Paris

Hives on the rooftop of the Grand Palais in Paris

Beekeeping in the city? Surprisingly, bees in Paris, and other big cities, produce two to three times more honey than their country brethren. Higher average temperatures in the city lead to an earlier flowering, which entices the worker bees to emerge earlier. City bees also produce honey with better flavour because they have access to a much greater variety of trees and flowers

In 1983 Jean Paucton installed the first hives on the rooftop of the Paris Opera, the Palais Garnier. The Palais Garnier honey, known as “Miel de Béton“, or Concrete honey, has notes of lemon and mint and can be bought at luxury stores such as Fauchon in Paris, or online. A total of some 300 hives are thought to exist in Paris.

Jean Pauctons Miel de Béton from the rooftop of the Paris Opera

Jean Paucton's "Miel de Béton" from the rooftop of the Paris Opera

The latest piece of prime Parisian real estate to offer space to beekeepers is the Grand Palais museum, which has installed its first two hives since May and plans to add three more early in 2010.

A bumper harvest of 50 kilos of honey took place on September 2, and the honey will be available for sale in autumn 2010. Nicholas Géant, beekepper of the two hives at the Grand Palais, was quoted in Le Monde recently as saying that “in the countryside, the mortality rate (for bees) is 30 to 50 percent” due to the high levels of pesticides present.

I haven’t tasted the Palais Garnier honey, but I do confess to finding it difficult to find a honey in France that tastes just right. Childhood memories of  taste-testing honey all over New Zealand seem to have left their mark and all other honeys don’t seem to measure up. Many of those honeys came from New Zealand’s unique wild flora, and have names like Tawari, Manuka, Towai and Kamahi.

Organic is more than a label

Living in Paris most of the year, the only guarantee I have that a product has not been treated with pesticides is the AB (Agriculture Biologique) label, which itself is due to be watered down in 2010. But here in the rural southwest, many producers have chosen not to apply for the AB label and those who have are thinking about abandoning it because of the cost, what they refer to as the “intrusiveness” of the organic label inspectors, and, above all, the fact that they have the type of relationship with their customers which ensures trust in their devotion to adhering to organic norms of production and quality.

Stone-ground organic flour from Les Papilles Gourmandes

Stone-ground organic flour from Les Papilles Gourmandes

Last weekend I purchased a bag of flour from a vendor at a local market after asking why she chose not to label her flour organic even though she claimed that it was not treated with any pesticides. The proof was in the baking. The flour was a lovely speckled grey-brown colour. The resulting loaf was by far the most delicious I have ever attempted, with greater depth of flavour and texture than the organic flours I have so far tested from supermarkets and even organic stores. The flour is milled from wheat produced from a small five-hectare plot, and stone-ground on site. I spoke with the farmer, Bruno Clerq, who told me that he just started the business this year and is motivated by the satisfaction of seeing a product through from A-Z. Along with the wheat, he also keeps bees. The satisfaction of eating the bread and sharing it with family was immense. I returned this morning to purchase a five-kilo sack for the rest of the summer.

One of the black gascony pigs from Pierre Laugiers farm

One of the black gascony pigs from Pierre Laugier's farm

Next to the flour vendor was a breeder of a rare indigenous variety of pork, the “porc noir gascon“. These rustic black pigs are classified as “endangered-maintained” according to the 3rd edition of the World Watch List for domestic animal diversity compiled by the FAO. An indigenous breed found in the southwest of France, the adult male weighs on average 200 kg, and females 180 kg. It’s worth remembering that the report documents that each week the world loses two breeds of domestic animal diversity, so efforts such as these by local farmers are worth supporting. I tested the dry sausage and it was succulent and surprisingly low in fat, as the pigs gain weight very slowly, thereby producing a rich, dense, almost gamey meat. They currently have an AB label but plan to give it up at the end of 2009.

If you would like to see these pigs close up, the Ferme de Guillaumet is open for visits and also has rural “gites” for rental by the week.

Tuna, eco-tent living and 13 moons – summertime links

France backs international ban on bluefin tuna, from Sam Fromartz at Chews Wise. Sarkozy’s decision was announced at the Grenelle de La Mer last week. Bluefin tuna fishing in France is esssentially concentrated around the Ile d’Yeu, off the Brittany coast. WWF welcomed the decision and the U.K. followed suit with a similar commitment.

Nice eco-tourism idea from “Un lit au pré”: five sites in France currently in working farms, you are housed in luxury tents furnished with plenty of understated, crunchy eco-chic flair and wood burning stoves. Spend your days collecting freshly laid eggs and mucking in around the farm.

This year I’ve noticed that our vegetable garden is suffering from some unidentifiable ailment – the soil is more than normally heavy, clayey and generally unfriendly even though there are no new variables this year. I started asking around and a farmer we visited last week at La Rabasse D’Astarac who specializes in preserving ancient varieties of heirloom tomatoes mentioned the fact that it is a year of thirteeen moons.

A treasure trove of biodiversity at La Rabasse DAstarac: the farm boasts 60 odd varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown organically with virtually no watering

A treasure trove of biodiversity at La Rabasse D'Astarac: the farm boasts 60 odd varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown organically with virtually no watering

Thirteen moons is a reference to the natural cycle of time. For every trip the Earth makes around the sun, the moon makes thirteen trips around the Earth. Thus “13 Moons” represents the wholeness of the natural world and its seasonal rhythms.

I then asked my favourite vegetable guy at our local market in Mirande this morning whether he subscribed to the 13 moons theory. His lettuce was looking bedraggled and I figured he would have an opinion. He replied that the 13 moons was an excuse for people who’ve had a bad year, and that the real culprit was some kind of thermic shock which has been operative since the beginning of the year in the region with strong winds coming from both the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts which have disturbed the climatic conditions for growing. If anyone has strong opinions or background info on 13 moons, please give me a shout!