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The “Last” Farmer of Organic Corn

Spain - 30/04/2013

With more than 25 years of farming experience, Felix Ballarin continues to put Sariñena (Huesca) on the map for its organic products, in particular the production of corn. The fact that genetically modified corn has contaminated the harvest of the area has given this product not one, not two, but three croppers. Traceability, although small, prevents the corn from being sold as organic with the economical repercussions of a crop with less performance to have greater fruition.

He has not ceased in his efforts for many reasons, even though the majority of the organic corn farmers have. Presently, the organic livestock farmers are increasingly becoming a “see and want” to obtain this raw material, which has reached the point of having to import this longed for organic manna “from Italy, though mostly from France” assures Blanca Ruibal who is in charge of the Agricultural Friends of the Earth. With the subsequent rise in price of raw materials not only for the farmer, but also the consumer Ruibal claims, “in Spain we are without organic corn.”

This is a view shared by farmers and ranchers. “In the last five years, 90% of organic farmers who produce corn in Aragon have abandoned GM contamination, which have increased especially since three years ago,” says Jose Manuel Benitez, the head of Ecological Agriculture Coordinator of Organizations of Farmers and Ranchers (COAG). According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the state level that is assigned to organic corn shows more growth in 2011 than in 2010 by rising from 649 ha to 695. This does not take into account the products that could not be sold as organic due to contamination, of which the Minister cannot provide official data for previous years because they were not equally measured. In a 2007 report issued by the Ministry shows that there were grain surfaces used in 2006 and provided data from 1996 of total organic agricultural surface. To this regard, Benitez says “the Ministry does not give data from previous years because they reflect the time during which there was a fall in the number of land used for organic corn. According to data provided by the Committee of Ecological Agriculture of Aragon, there has been a 70% drop in the past five years only in Aragon.”

More demand than offer

Benitez confirmed first hand the difficulty of buying organic corn in Spain. He is an organic cattle breeder that raises cows and Iberian pig for meat who some time ago commented, “my supplier sent me a letter saying that he could not guarantee the supply of organic corn. Imagine… I don’t believe that there will be a thousand farmers of organic corn regardless to the high demand”. This is not because the price of this raw material does not interest the farmer. The problems lay within the difficulties that are involved. “I will continue to cultivate organic corn to show that it is virtually impossible to go for this when the field is filled with transgenic corn,” says Ballarin.

The cultivation of organic corn on its own “has a small yield, a 35-40% under the conventional although it accounts for the price differences. For example, this year the price of organic corn by the ton is between 300 and 330 Euros, while the transgenic corn sells for 260 Euros on average. “ Even though, “to obtain a higher level of contamination, you must ‘play’ with the dates. That is to say, although the optimal dates for harvesting corn in Aragon are between April 15th and May 15th, in the south, you must avoid the risk of traceability by sowing on earlier dates in order to decrease contamination, although it does not prevent it. Sowing before the cold diminishes the yield, but sowing later may not give enough time for the corn cycle to complete. “ specifies Ballarin who lost 600 Euros per hectare at the last cropping because his farming was contaminated. To many, this amount seems high, but this changes if you sum up the small yielding and the cost of 400 Euros for the counter-analysis the organic farmer has to do to match the analysis that the product gave a positive traceability.

This year, the organic farmer has not yet planted even a hectare of organic corn in his plot of 40. “Even though I’m thinking about cultivating it. This is my way of showing how the coexistence of organic and non organic corn is uncertain, not possible” says the farmer that continues to cultivate organic wheat, barley, and vegetables, according to him the only one cultivating organic produce in Sariñena.

Nonetheless the demand is for corn. It is so that the ranchers privately arrange to buy organic corn from the farmers. It is essential to have for the beginning of fall or when there is no grass due to the pressing of dry weather. If at the end there is contamination the problem is not only for the farmer, but also for the rancher. “The organic ranchers of Andalucía can not find high quality feed, most importantly rich in protein. This forces us to find organic soy and or to import organic corn. The other option has been to feed the cattle beans or chickpeas, but they don’t have the same nutritional value” expresses the COAG expert.

As the price of imported corn increases, his “ace up the sleeve”, as it has been with other ranchers, is to join others in creating the possibility of buying organic corn in Spain. Nevertheless, Benitez emphasizes, “We don’t have what is needed. Because of that, organic feed is 50% more expensive than the conventional. Although we’ve reached a compromise with the farmer before the land produces fruit, we always face the danger of having positive traceability. “

There is a higher risk especially when “Spain gathers almost 90% of nonorganic produce of all of Europe while countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Ireland, Hungary, or Austria have prohibited these cultivations in their lands due to serious doubts on their effects on health and their impact on the environment” announced Friends of the Earth via a communiqué.

“Organic corn has practically disappeared from Spain because of the numerous contaminations. The cattle feed sold in Spain is 100% nonorganic,” says Ruibal.
The Antama Foundation holds a distinct view and states, “We are reaching the extinction of organic corn. Organic farming, traditional and transgenic cohabitate around the world, but in Spain they coexist since 15 years ago.” In regard to the prohibition of BT corn in other part of the world, the foundation for transgenic confirms that Germany (who prohibited such cultivation in 2009) as well as France (who prohibited it in 2009) applied a protection clause that requires the establishment of scientifically justified decision and the approval of the European Food Safety Authority. Although the cited clause has not been lifted, the French Council of State says that the prohibition is illegal. This declaration corroborates the announcement given by the European Court of Justice that categorizes it as illicit. Both organizations agree that the French government has not provided any scientific evidence that justifies the health or environmental risks of such farming. They state after confirming, “90% of genetically altered European corn is sowed in Spain.”

Experimental Area

The extinction of nonorganic cornfields is not unique. “Although in Spain is only permitted to trade nonorganic corn, if the experimental farming of other raw material is permitted, they will not sell.” says Ruibal. “The continued problem is that although the Minister of Agriculture has published which business have completed the application, it does not specify the exact coordinates of the plots. In 20011 and 2012 they told us where. In 2012 we requested this same information and no one responded. When we know exactly where, we can farm on other lots.”

It is not only about agreeing or disagreeing on the topic, but about confirming that coexistence is possible. If it is not possible, this is not the road we need to take.

La - Belén Tobalina



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