PARIS May 31 France wants to double the area of farmland devoted to organic agriculture by 2017 to meet growing consumer demand through local production, the country's farm minister said.
France, the European Union's biggest agricultural producer, has seen organic farming expand quickly in recent years but it remains a niche, accounting for 1 million hectares or 3.7 percent of farmland nationally at the end of 2012.
The new area objective would be tied to moves to boost research and training in growing techniques, and to bring more organic food into outlets, Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said.
"We're going to develop in such a way that we'll increase volume while maintaining the level of quality," he told reporters at a presentation of his organic farming plan. "I want the French (organic) sector to be a high-quality one."
The market for organic food in France was worth 4.17 billion euros ($5.40 billion) last year, according to the agency that promotes the development of the sector. It says an economic downturn has slowed growth from double-digit levels in previous years but 2012 sales were still up 6.6 percent on year.
The government plans to raise subsidies for organic farmers to 160 million euros annually on average during 2014-2020, compared to 90 million euros last year, to swell their numbers from 25,000 currently.
Imported organic food accounted for 25 percent of demand last year, down from 32 percent in 2011, the French organic food agency said.
Officials said attracting crop farmers remains challenging given high yields and profitable market prices for conventional grain, with major crop belts among those regions with the lowest share of organic farmland.
To ensure organic produce finds domestic outlets, the government wants institutional caterers to target a 20 percent share for organic food in their menus. ($1 = 0.7716 euros) (Reporting by Gus Trompiz; editing by Keiron Henderson)