THE LABEL TRAP

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In 1924, Rudolph Steiner held a series of lectures on agriculture in Koberwitz, the transcription of which became the Farmers’ Course. It gave birth to organic farming. And he set the tone from the start: his thinking on agronomic and economic matters was the antithesis of the rationalism of his time, to say the least. Although the other personalities who subsequently inspired this movement — Albert Howard, Hans Müller, Hans-Peter Rusch, Masanobu Fukuoka… — had a much less esoteric discourse(1), each of them expressed their opposition to a narrowly scientistic interpretation of the agricultural research data of their time. And all of them took a clear agrarian position in political and social matters, in favor of a prosperity and social harmony based on a numerous, free and autonomous peasantry, free from any legal or economic bondage. The agronomic and socio-political aspects of their discourse are absolutely inseparable. Although as diverse as their personalities, their proposals converge in depth around a project of society, as diffuse and confused as it is. This project has its philosophical bases: the primacy of Nature over artifice, very apparent in the stated agronomic principles; the refusal of an economy entirely organized for industry and profit, whether this economy is liberal or collectivist; and a certain social egalitarianism, through the idea of shared sobriety and respect for the autonomy of the peasant. Thus, an intellectual current was formed that combined ecological concerns — respect for natural environments, protection of human health — and political concerns, in reaction to what can be called industrialism born with the industrial revolution. 

During the second half of the 20th century, a period dominated by the confrontation of liberal and Marxist ideologies won over by industrialism, this current remained very discreet. But today, the failure of Marxism, the frightening triumph of liberalism and the prospect of climate chaos make it relevant and urgent. But are we still talking about organic agriculture? 

organic agriculture, a project for society? 

The organic farming movement has always been the bearer of the social project of its founders. This is evidenced by the charters that it has acquired over the years. The first one was written in France, by Nature&Progrès, in 1964. It served as the mould for subsequent ones, in particular the IFOAM charter(2) (the world federation of organic agriculture) adopted in 1972. This charter, adopted in France by the FNAB(3) in 1992, expresses the identity that this movement gives itself. Seventeen ecological principles for production, seven « social and humanistic » principles, and five « economic » principles are set out. We read the words « solidarity », « equity », « cooperation », « proximity », « keeping peasants on the land », etc. These are the principles with which most organic producers identify, and a large number of buyers of organic products, many of whom have never been just « consumers ». But these fine words have not prevented the development of forms of production and trade of organic products that are the most contrary to these principles: Andalusian organic strawberries produced on an estate illegally installed in a natural park and harvested by an overexploited and recluse labor force, Colombian organic palm oil from land taken away by violence from indigenous peasant communities, organic chickens from the Landes produced by breeders under integration contracts(4) with the big cereal cooperatives which militate for the authorization of GMO crops, the stranglehold of multinationals — Monsanto in the lead — on the world trade of processed organic products(5), etc. The list is endless(6).

how is such a contradiction possible? 

A century ago, this movement was founded in reaction to a double threat: that of the ecological destruction and the sanitary disaster promised by chemical agriculture, and that of the dissolution by the industrial economy of the peasant communities, still endowed at that time with a large economic independence and a certain cultural autonomy. The peasants, aware of the dull threat that chemistry, industry and finance posed to the « natural » order of things and to the permanence of their communities, resisted passively, by inertia. But this resistance broke down in the middle of the last century, in the East in the face of the steamroller of state capitalism, in the West in the face of the power of corporations and the obsession of governments to « modernize » agriculture, i.e. to make peasants disappear. 

In spite of its accuracy and coherence, the technical and political alternative of organic farming has remained almost inaudible, and from this point of view the results of the movement are a historical failure: the traditional agriculture of our ancestors, as ecological as it was autonomous, has disappeared from the countries of the North and continues to decline in those of the South. Pressed by the urgency to make organic farms survive economically in an economy conquered in a few decades by industry and mass distribution, and unable to find any support from the scientific, administrative and political apparatuses, organic activists had no other choice than to create a relatively protected space in the form of commercial circuits covered by labels. The merits of these labels are undeniable. They have allowed organic farming to survive, and today it is finally being credited with both scientific validity and economic viability(7). And its potential role as a starting point for a phenomenon of social and political crystallization for a new « ecological and social contract » is becoming increasingly clear. 

But the worm is in the fruit. The content of the charters has never been questioned, but the certification systems that award the labels are based on specifications . These documents are reduced to lists of authorized inputs and techniques. Any social, let alone ethical, requirement is absent. How could it be otherwise? It is understandable to entrust an inspector with the verification of the conformity of technical operations, although half a day’s visit per year is not enough to guarantee this conformity. But the ethical and social compliance of a farm or a processing company is something else, it is irreducible to a simple questionnaire or an accounting audit. This is the first criticism that can be levelled at the label: it cannot assess the purpose of an individual’s work or the coherence of a company’s activity with a political project of this nature. In this respect, participatory guarantee schemes have more room for maneuver. An organization such as Nature&Progrès(8), which writes its own specifications and implements its own guarantee system, could refuse the label to a company that respects the specifications but is in contradiction with the charter. On the other hand, the official labels, national or European, are all based, by decree of the European Commission(9), on the principle of certification by third parties, i.e. by private agencies carrying out detective work on behalf of governments. When the CEO of one of these agencies is asked about the problem of AB certification of palm oil from Daabon in Colombia(10)He answers that it is a way to make organic food accessible to underprivileged consumers (an argument that can be meditated on…), and that in any case, he could not refuse the label on other considerations than the strict respect of the specifications, otherwise he would be guilty of « discrimination » and could see his accreditation as a certifier withdrawn. We see here how the propensity of firms to make social regulations disappear all over the world with the complicity of public authorities finds its illustration in the very heart of bio. The system is all the more locked since the specifications of the AB label are written by the European Commission. And the last reform of these specifications (in 2009) clearly showed the objective of the Commission: to make organic farming easier to practice by industrial operators (easing of technical requirements for breeding and processing activities, authorization to label products containing up to 0.9% of GMOs, etc.), and to facilitate international trade in raw materials and organic products in a perfectly ultraliberal perspective 

Certainly N&P can rightly consider itself an alternative to these forms of perversion that affect the official label. But this organization was marginalized during the long process of recognition of organic farming by national and European authorities in the 1980s and 1990s. Those of its producers who refuse to add the official label to the N&P mention (double control, double cost…) are moreover forbidden to use the expression « product of organic farming », the European label reserving this term to the holders of the official label. 

organic seeds… not very organic 

Despite its current commercial success, or because of it, the label is leading organic to a dead end. This is the consequence of its integration into the official certification system, but also of its own dynamics. This is particularly clear in the area of seeds. Both the official label and the N&P specifications require that the seed used in organic farming be organic itself, and they define organic seed as having gone through at least its last production cycle organically. The only restriction on breeding techniques is the refusal of transgenesis.

The ethical and social compliance of a farm or processing company is irreducible to a simple questionnaire or accounting audit 

While the charters demand that seeds be produced and selected using methods that respect natural reproduction processes and the integrity of living organisms, the seeds used today by organic farmers are mostly produced in the laboratories of multinational seed companies, which subject their varieties to the full arsenal of biotechnologies, which consists of violent manipulation of the genome. If these varieties do not fall under the GMO legislation, it is only because this legislation has chosen to consider as Genetically Modified Organisms only those organisms that have undergone transgenesis. It is sufficient that these seeds were grown « organically » the last season before they were put on the market for them to be labelled AB. For lack of having taken sufficient care, organic farming is now deeply infiltrated by these genetically modified seeds, which pose the same problems of dissemination and contamination as « official » GMOs, and are rightly qualified ashidden GMOs. Having become aware of this problem very late, the representative bodies of the « official » organic sector, the FNAB in France and the IFOAM at the world level, are slow to react, and cling to the derisory requirement that all seeds used in organic farming must themselves be « organic », without proposing for the time being a clear redefinition of what an organic seed is. This requirement has a particularly perverse effect: when choosing his seed, if he has the possibility of using a non-organic but natural seed supplied by a conventional neighbor, the organic producer will have to prefer a certified organic industrial seed, even if it is genetically modified. Thus, organic farming also contributes, through its own regulations, to the regulatory and economic mechanisms responsible for the erosion of cultivated biodiversity and the loss of peasant autonomy, as the report published by G.R.A.I.N.(11) in 2008 shows very well. 

take over

Founded to protect organic farming and to help it develop, the label has turned out to be a dangerous, double-edged tool: today it is the means by which capital domesticates organic farming, strips it of its contentious or subversive character and makes it one more area offered to its expansion and to the whims of bureaucracy. 

For the hope of making ecological agriculture the basis of a livable society to survive, it is vital and urgent to regain control, to stop relying on a label that is profoundly ambiguous in its principle, to become aware that this tool is not the right one: it is fundamentally a marketing tool, very efficient to develop industrial production and its sale on the world market, but not suitable to operate a social transformation which resides precisely in a exit from the world market, in favor of small autonomous production units, using exclusively natural resources and supplying the local market. From this perspective, the economic viability of these farms depends on the richness and intensity of local social relations. This is clearly shown by the experience of the Local Solidarity Partnerships that are the AMAPs and the Solidarity Purchasing Groups. Within these partnerships and their networks, the issue of labelling is being debated. The concept of a Participatory Guarantee System (an autonomous certification device, such as that of N&P) often appears to be a way of escaping the trap of the official label while still satisfying a compulsive need for a guarantee. But in the end it is mostly without the need for a label and without the need for a guarantee system that these networks develop. Proximity and direct mutual knowledge allow for a « short circuit » of trust, which makes the institutional, bureaucratic and police set-up of labels obsolete. The « social contract » behind these partnerships is to offer farmers some guarantee of economic survival in exchange for their commitment to environmentally friendly practices and the provision of healthy food. The reality of the economic guarantee offered by consumers is always relative, and the practices of all farmers, no matter how environmentally friendly, are tainted by multiple trade-offs. The evolution of each other’s commitment is a matter of trust and time. The application of external validation systems to these partnerships is at best useless, at worst dangerous, in that it can easily destabilize the always delicate human relationship that must be established between farmers and those they feed. 

It is time to stop opposing « organic » and « conventional » in a Manichean way, by realizing that all farmers, organic as well as others, are led to make very large concessions to the industrial mode of production (energy, mechanization, plastics, sale to industrial operators and to mass distribution, etc.). The objective of finally getting out of this system implies opening our eyes and paying attention to all farmers, in order to recreate with them the social and economic fabric that is indispensable for the accomplishment of the project of the founders of organic farming. On this condition, we can hope that this movement will open the way to a stabilized economy, reconciled with the needs of the Planet, based on an equitable sharing of natural resources and on the recognition of a right of access to the land guaranteed to all. And that it paves the way for the recognition of the autonomy and responsibility of individuals and local communities as philosophical and political values. 

Pierre Besse, farmer, agronomist, co-author of the book « La Bio entre business et projet de société « , directed by Philippe Baqué, éditions Agone, 2012. 

(*) (Editor’s note: The author distinguishes here between « the organic » and what is called « the organic ». The first one is not reduced to a code of production technique that restricts the use of artifices that are supposed to threaten the sanitary quality of the product. In this case, organic is just organic: a segment of the food market covered by a label.

Notes et références
  1. Voir Yvan Besson, «Les fédérations de l’agriculture biologique», le Sang de la terre, 2011.
  2. IFOAM: International Fedration of Organic Agriculture Movement, www.ifoam.org.
  3. Fédération Nationale de l’Agriculture Biologique, www.fnab.org.
  4. Le contrat d’intégration, signé entre un industriel et un éleveur, prive ce dernier de toute autonomie. L’industriel fournit les capitaux, les plans des bâtiments, les protocoles alimentaires et sanitaires, l’aliment du bétail, et il rachète toute la production, à un prix qui n’est souvent même pas définit dans le contrat. Par contre tout le travail et tous les risques sont assumés par l’éleveur.
  5. Voir l’article de Dominique Guillet dans ce dossier “La bio piratée”.
  6. Voir «la bio entre business et projet de société», dirigé par Philippe Baqué, 2012, éditions Agone.
  7. «Rapport du rapporteur spécial sur le droit à l’alimentation», A/ HRC/16/49, Olivier de Schutter, 2010; «Rapport de l’IAASTD», 2009; «Rapport de la Conférence internationale sur l’agriculture biologique et la sécurité alimentaire », FAO, 2007.
  8. N&P est une fédération de groupes locaux réunissant producteurs et consommateurs. www.natureetprogres.org.
  9. Directive européenne EN 45011.
  10. Voir le dossier «Sortir de la bio industrielle, une urgence sociale» de Philippe Baqué, dans la revue Silence N° 384, nov. 2010.
  11. GRAIN (Genetic Resources Action International), à qui profite la récolte ? La politique de certification des semences biologiques, 2008. GRAIN est une organisation à but non lucratif qui soutient la lutte des paysans et des mouvements sociaux pour renforcer le contrôle des communautés sur des systèmes alimentaires fondés sur la biodiversité. www.grain.org/fr
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