PARIS, June 4 (Reuters) - A record number of French farms switched to organic production last year, helped by the grains sector catching on to the trend, the country’s organic food agency said on Tuesday.
France, the European Union’s largest agricultural producer, added 5,000 organic farms last year, surpassing a prior high of 4,200 seen in both 2016 and 2017, the Agence Bio said in an annual market review.
That increased the number of organic farms by 13% to 41,600, or 9.5% of all French farms. The organic farmland area expanded by 17% to 2 million hectares, or 7.5% of all farmland.
In the crop sector, the organic area jumped 31% to 514,000 hectares, or 4.3% of the national crop area.
“We’ve taken a step forward in the crop sector,” Philippe Henry, a farmer and president of Agence Bio, told reporters. “Before it wasn’t the done thing to convert to organic, now it’s become something normal.”
Weak prices for conventional grain, subsidies for organic farming and supply chain investments encouraged more crop farmers to switch, Agence Bio said, adding that conversions were mainly outside grain belts with the highest yields.
The share of organic farmland in France, however, is still only half of a 15% target the government has set for 2022.
The sharp rise in organic production was helping keep pace with strong consumer demand and cap imports, Agence Bio said.
Organic food sales rose 15.7% last year to 9.7 billion euros ($10.9 billion), or 5% of overall food spending by French households, it said.
That kept France as the EU’s second-largest organic food market, behind Germany which saw sales of 10.9 billion, it said.
Supermarkets, which accounted for 49% of sales last year, drove demand by giving consumers greater access to organic food, it added.
The share of imports was stable at 31% in volume terms.
Agence Bio, a government-backed body that promotes organic farming, played down the risk that fast growth would erode price premiums for farmers and also lead to less sustainable practices, saying the sector would adjust.
Farming organisations are currently debating whether to allow heating of greenhouses for organic production in France, leading some groups to criticise industrial methods.
$1 = 0.8891 euros Reporting by Gus Trompiz; Editing by Susan Fenton