French organic wheat sector hit by sluggish demand

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By Sybille de La Hamaide2 hours, 30 minutes ago

France's organic wheat harvest, which makes up less than one percent of the country's total wheat crop, will be plentiful this year but the sector is threatened by stagnant demand, producers said on Wednesday.

"First cuttings show the 2005 organic soft wheat crop will be satisfactory in volume and quality," Intercereales said in a statement.

The umbrella group of grain producers and consumers did not give a precise estimate for the crop but the president of its organic division, Salvador Ferret, said the total would be above the average of 60,000 tonnes a year.

Organic agriculture has taken off over the past decade in Europe after food and farming crises over mad cow disease, dioxin, foot-and-mouth and swine fever, and amid continued concerns over genetically modified crops (GMOs).

But interest in France lags behind that in other European countries. And organic wheat, used to make baguettes, biscuits and sliced bread, is now under threat in the country due to a drop in prices that started several seasons ago, Ferret said.

"Between 1997 and 2002, there was a real craze for organic products, which led to a huge demand to the point where production could not keep up," he said.

"We worked hard and organic grain production increased strongly. But at the same time demand has stagnated as public interest and consumption remained stable. So we are now in a situation of over-production," he added.

French organic wheat prices are close to the level where it would be more profitable for producers to go back to growing conventional wheat, putting the whole sector at risk.

"The real worry is to see farmers...go back to conventional farming," Ferret said.

To reverse the drop in prices, organic producers have tried to boost demand and attract industrial bread and biscuit makers by increasing grain quality.

"Organic wheat was first aimed at traditional bread makers. But we've raised the quality so that it meets industrial requirements," Ferret said. "All we have to do now is to convince them, as well as consumers, to use more of it."

France said earlier this year it wanted to boost its organic sector, which recorded a two percent drop in cultivated area and a three percent fall in the number of farms last year.

Under a 20-year blueprint for agriculture, France plans to grant a tax rebate to farmers who earned 40 percent of their income from organic farming.

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