A petition against heated greenhouses used to produce organic vegetables

The National Federation of Organic Agriculture (Fnab) launched a petition this Wednesday, May 29 to denounce the abuses of organic farming.

“No organic tomatoes in winter”. The message launched this Wednesday by the National Federation of Organic Agriculture (Fnab), supported by other NGOs (the Nicolas Hulot Foundation, Greenpeace and Climate Action Network), organic farmers and chefs is clear: industrialization of fruits and vegetables heated in greenhouses is incompatible with the very principle of organic. “For the past few months, we have seen the development of projects for the biological conversion of heated greenhouses for the production of fruits and vegetables out of season. These projects in the making will make it possible to find French organic tomatoes on the shelves in the middle of March. A taste, agronomic and environmental aberration!” are alarmed the authors of the petition.

The petition is addressed directly to the Minister of Agriculture and Food, Didier Guillaume, with a real stake: on July 11, the National Committee for Organic Agriculture (Cnab) will be held. The latter should settle the thorny question of “use of heating greenhouses for the production of plants and frost protection” which tears the actors of the food industry into two camps.

Currently, the practice of heated organic greenhouses is residual in France. Of the current 24,000 hectares of organic vegetable crops, only 50, or 0.2%, use this technique which, for example, makes it possible to obtain organic tomatoes in March. At the same time, the organic market in France is exploding (+17% of organic consumption in 2017), although it still only represents around 5% of the French food market. Logically, as demand increases, supply develops, and organic is increasingly of interest to players in “conventional” agriculture, which contributes to the proliferation of heated greenhouse projects producing organic: around sixty hectares of organic could soon emerge in Brittany, and about forty in the Pays de la Loire.

Pro-greenhouse pressure

Today, nothing explicitly prohibits the use of energy to grow organic fruit and vegetables, since in the absence of projects of this type, there was so far no French provision on the subject. The new organic regulation adopted by the European Union adopted in May 2018 requires France to draft a “reading guide” supposed to define the terms of application. The question of heated greenhouses therefore had to be decided since last December during a previous Cnab vote, on a text indicating that heating “is possible while respecting natural cycles when it uses renewable resources produced on the farm” . A reassuring text for the Fnab, which would formally prohibit heating greenhouses to produce organic vegetables out of season. Problem, the conventional actors asked the minister to postpone the vote, and this twice, which does not bode well for opponents of heated greenhouses.

Among the pro-greenhouses are conventional heavyweights: tomato giants such as the Breton cooperatives Cerafel and Coopérative maraichère de l’Ouest, but also the majority union, the FNSEA, the Permanent Assembly of Chambers of Agriculture as well as other powerful cooperatives. What to weigh in the negotiations with the State.

“Incompatible with organic”

Proponents of the heated greenhouse argue that ‘heating greenhouses is a cultivation technique in accordance with organic production rules, which is practiced freely in other EU Member States’. According to them, prohibiting this practice “would amount to giving up quality French organic production, in compliance with our high social standards, with the guarantee of volumes meeting the demand of downstream operators”, by creating a ” distortion of competition”.

The authors of the petition deplore an intrinsic incompatibility between the heating of greenhouses and the organic label. “The organic specifications impose respect for natural cycles and responsible use of energy. Heating your greenhouse to produce tomatoes or cucumbers in the middle of winter cannot therefore be compatible with organic farming”, can we read in the petition. In fact, 80% of greenhouses heated in France are heated by fossil fuels, gas or oil. According to a study by Ademe, a tomato produced in France in a heated greenhouse emits 8 times more greenhouse gases than a tomato produced in France in season, and 4 times more than a tomato imported from Spain (where the greenhouses are not heated).

Concerns to which the pro-greenhouses respond by promising to work on energy savings, on the use of renewable energies such as biomass, heat pumps or biogas from methanization, and not to make organic cultivation in a heated greenhouse for only a few weeks a year, which would lengthen the natural production period.

For the signatories of the petition, heated greenhouses are made profitable by manufacturers by specializing in “one or two vegetables with high added value. By reducing the diversity of crops, they impoverish their soils and thus still contravene the principles of organic farming”. Generally speaking, the original players in organic farming denounce the loss of the soul of “the” organic in favor of “the” organic, in other words the reduction of this label to its sole productive dimension (organic is what is produced without petrochemical pesticides) and therefore, in the long term, a risk of absorption of organic farming by industry. If the threat were to materialize, the anti-greenhouses would then have no other weapon than consumer awareness.

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