Debate over heated greenhouses heats up in France

France: No more heated organic greenhouse crops sold in winter

Growing organic vegetables in a heated greenhouse. According to various French organizations this is a complete contradiction, but according to the European organic certification rules there's nothing wrong with it. Today the French decided it will remain possible to grow organic in heated greenhouses - although new restrictions will come into place.

The debate
European organic rules say organic growers have to respect the natural seasons and use energy responsibly and if possible in a renewable way. A not very clear guideline - and therefore currently over 40 French greenhouses are heated and organic. This amount is growing: the demand for organic vegetables in France is currently higher than the supply. However, the heating of organic greenhouses is a thorn in the side of many French.

This week nearly 100 Parliamentarians wrote to Didier Guillaume, Minister of Agriculture, to emphasize their support with an online petition, started by the French organic organization FNAB, Greenpeace France and other organizations. Within 6 weeks this petition was signed by over 80,000 people. "We expect you to listen to these voices on July 11th", they said. "Because it's not only about heated greenhouses - it's also about the future of both agriculture and energy in our country."

They called out to refuse the use of heating in French organic greenhouses. According to Philippe Riffared, organic greenhouse grower and co-president of Grab Bio Center, the shelf life of heated produce is way lower and it's grown in a non-sustainable way. "We don't want the consumer to lose faith in the organic label", he says, pointing out the use of CO2 by heated production is way higher than non-heated production. Other growers point out that during summer, the unheated crops are being pushed out of the market by greenhouse-grown tomatoes. 

Only producing three months per year
Of course, there's another side to the story as well. Greenhouse growers try to explain how they need heating. "If we have to stop heating our greenhouses tomorrow, it means the French consumer has to buy Spanish produce in April and May. Our quality is much better though", organic grower Jean-Luc Roux told Europe1. He grows his tomatoes with a biomass boiler and therefore reduces the needed carbon dioxide as well.

Horticultural organization FNSEA points out that greenhouse growing helps nature, limiting the use of chemicals and water and saving the soils, and on top of that limiting import needs for produce from Germany, Poland, Israel or Argentina. They say giving up heating would distort competition within Europe, pointing out currently 78% of the French organic tomatoes are imported. 

Also the Minister of Agriculture, Didier Guillaume, said Tuesday to senators, the government was "not opposed" to the heating of greenhouses in organic farming. "We are, and I am, very opposed to the counter-seasonality of fruits and vegetables," he insisted.

It's clear that the debate over unheated greenhouses has heated up in France. The decision on the rules was postponed twice in the last 8 months since there was no unity to be reached. Now the rules have become clear. The Ministry of Agriculture announced heating will be allowed, but on a restricted schedule: there will be no marketing between 21 December and 30 April of organic fruit and vegetables produced in French heated greenhouses, said the Ministry of Agriculture.

On top of that the government plans to impose the use of renewable energy to feed these greenhouses by 2025, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The responses are mixed. "Allowing the sale of organic tomatoes from the first day of spring is equivalent to authorizing the heating of organic greenhouses throughout the winter to more than 20 degrees, the equivalent of 200,000 to 250,000 liters of fuel oil per hectare", said Jean-Paul Gabillard, market gardener and national vegetable secretary at Fnab. 

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