Special report: what's wrong with our food? - Europe rethinks policies: Organic methods on increase
Wednesday February 28, 2001 - The Guardian
France has been battered by a series of recent food scares, ranging from listeria-infected cheeses and dioxin-tainted chickens to sewage-fed pigs and BSE cows.
Sales of beef plummeted by up to 40% last year at the height of a nationwide BSE panic, although France has so far discovered only 270 cases of BSE - against 180,000 in Britain.
Sales of organic meat, fruit and vegetables have risen by 25% over the past two years. Successive food crises only increase Europe-wide calls for a fundamental shift in agricultural policies and practices. But agricultural reform to improve food production methods - and particularly any reform of the EU's common agricultural policy (CAP) - will be more difficult to sell in France than anywhere else in Europe.
French farmers benefit more than any others from the CAP. They are capable of bringing the country to a standstill and used to getting what they want from nervous French governments.
Green politician Renate Künast was appointed last month as the new food, agriculture and consumer minister to steer Germany towards a more organic future in the wake of the BSE crisis which hit the country in November.
The 45-year old lawyer has pledged to bring food production "closer to nature", in contrast to her predecessor, Karl-Heinz Funke, an advocate of intensive farming. She is working hard to win over the farming lobby, but among the public whose consumer confidence has been severely battered, her support has grown rapidly.
Only 2.1% of Germany's farms are organic, or in the process of conversion, compared with Sweden, with 11.2%, Austria 10%, Denmark 6% and Britain 3%.
Ms Künast aims to push for 20% of farms to become organic within 10 years.
An aggressive environmental policy has made Denmark one of Europe's most organic countries. Even its agricultural minister, Ritt Bjerregaard, is an organic farmer.
But throughout the 1970s and 1980s Denmark's pigs were intensively farmed, its cows suffered and its crops were heavily dosed in synthetic chemicals. Modern organic farming in Denmark started in the 1970s as a popular protest against intensive conventional agriculture and due to increasing concerns about environment, animal welfare and product quality. In 1988, the Danish government became the first in the world to adopt regulations governing organic farming. Unlike Britain, where organic farming is still marginalised and barely funded, the Danish government sees no problems for economic growth or competitiveness. The country exports £21m of organic food a year. The government also pays handsomely for farmers to convert and is turning more money to research.