France will lose its familiar green Agriculture Biologique (AB) label next year. New rules came into effect on Jan 1, 2009 aimed at harmonizing standards among the 27 European Union nations on organic agriculture. While the text seeks to simplify and impose common standards, the net effect for countries like France is to considerably lower the barrier for organic agriculture. According to a poll conducted by the CSA/Agence Bio in 2008, 85 percent of French people know the AB label and use it as a reference for consumer decisions.
Under the EU law, national labels will disappear in July 2010 to be replaced by a mandatory European logo, which is currently the object of a contest open to EU art or design students.
On the positive side, new products like wine, plants, seeds, yeast and aquaculture will be classified under the new label. The new legislation upholds the fundamental principles of organic agriculture: ie a ban on the use of chemical pesticides, respect for animal welfare, a ban on the deliberate introduction of GM crops.
However, a doorway has been opened to accidental GM contamination from neighbouring fields, on the condition that the traces of GM crops are less than 0.9 % of the total weight of the product. Furthermore, contrary to previous French legislation, pig and poultry farmers no longer have to produce at least 40 percent of their animal feed on site. Finally, the new legislation has fewer restrictions on antibiotic treatments (three annual treatments are now permitted. Poultry can now be sold at 70 days compared with the former minimum of 81 days and anti-parasite treatments are now allowed.
French organic producers, for their part, intend to roll out their own, more demanding set of criteria starting from January 2010 in order to maintain their high standards. Standards aside, it is worth noting that France – Europe’s top pesticide user – is a big laggard when it comes to organic agriculture in terms of surface area planted. Only 2 percent of land in France is farmed organically, compared with the European average of 4-5 percent. Best performers among the 27 are Austria (13 percent), Estonia, Latvia and Italy (9 percent) and Greece (8 percent).