By Paul Ames
The Associated Press
STAVELOT, Belgium (AP)--Jean-Pierre Bastin beams with pride as he shows off his dairy herd grazing on the lush hilltop pastures his family has farmed for four generations deep in the Ardennes forest.
But a grimace wipes away the organic farmer's smile at the mention of the health scares staining the reputation of Europe's farm products.
"It's revolting. We're doing our best to produce quality food, and there are farmers out there who'll do anything for money. It gives us all a bad name," Bastin says, his breath clouding the chill morning air.
Bastin, 44, is part of a new breed of European farmer bucking the trend toward intensive, industrialized agriculture, which many people blame for the mad-cow crisis in Britain, Belgium's dioxin scandal and revelations of French cattle fattened on sewage sludge.
Feeding on mounting consumer distrust of such chemical-dependent farming, Europe's organic agriculture is growing faster than a hormone-injected steer.
The sector once dismissed as the pasttime of crackpots and idealists has grown into a business worth some $7.3 billion a year in the European Union and around $15.6 billion worldwide, says Dr. Nicolas Lampkin, an agriculture specialist at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth.
A report Lampkin prepared for the EU this year said the number of organic farms in the bloc had soared from just 6,300 in 1985 to more than 100,000 in 1998.
Even with that spectacular growth, organic farmers are struggling to cope with demand, Lampkin says in a telephone interview.
"The food scares have played a role, but there's a more general expectation for better food standards, higher quality among consumers .. they want to avoid genetically modified organisms in particular," he says.
By 2005, Lampkin expects 10 percent of all agricultural land in western Europe will be organic, farming that uses only animal or vegetable fertilizers and does without chemical pesticides, growth hormones and the like. Austria has already passed 10 percent; Switzerland and Sweden are not far behind.
Bastin made the switch to organic in 1994.
"I'd had enough of chemical fertilizers. I wanted to work more with nature, closer to the soil," Bastin explains as he feeds armfuls of hay to his black-and-white Holstein-Friesian calves. "My grandfather did it that way, why can't I?"
Bastin, who sells his milk to a nearby organic cheese maker, says there are 15 organic dairy farmers in the Ardennes region of high plateau and wooded valleys close to the German border in eastern Belgium, and 50 more are in the process of converting their land to organic production.
Lampkin says the rapid development of organic production was facilitated by EU legislation in the early 1990s that set common standards across the 15-nation bloc and allowed for government subsidies to help farmers break their dependence on artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
The Belgian government paid Bastin $308 for each of his 135 acres during the two-year statutory conversion period before his farm could be licensed as organic.
Farmers can also get higher prices for organic goods. Although Bastin's 45 cows produce less now that they are on an organic diet, pint-for-pint, he gets triple the price for his milk now.
In Belgium's Delhaize supermarket chain, six organic eggs sell for the equivalent of $1.56, double the price of non-organic. Three organic leeks are $2.09, compared to $1.25 for a bundle of five grown conventionally.
Delhaize is among a burgeoning number of European supermarkets that are taking organic retailing out of the hands of the small farm stores that have long pioneered bio-products.
"Organic products are becoming the number one choice for more and more customers, and we have had to expand our range of lines to over 500," says Andrew Sellick, organic buyer at Britain's Tesco PLC.
Tesco says organic sales will top $162 million this year, compared to just $8 million three years ago.
As big business muscles into the organic sector, some people fear the original farmers' dedication to organic production will be undermined as the sector expands to take on those motivated more by profits than ecological ideals.
Europe's organic watchdogs disagree.
"It's very tightly controlled," says Jerome Geels at the Belgium branch of Ecocert, one of the bodies authorized by governments to certify organic producers.
Although Ecocert's inspectors are increasingly overworked by the bio-food boom, Geels says farmers can still expect up to 10 unannounced inspections a year to ensure standards are respected.
Organic farming pioneers view the expansion with mixed feelings. Concern about competition from big business is mingled with satisfaction over what activists see as benefits for the environment, health and rural employment.
"I always said that when organic products took off in the big supermarkets we would have won," says Henri Paque, who went organic on his 111-acre farm 20 years ago.
Paque, 53, watches his son serve a line of customers from the nearby city of Liege choosing from an organic range in his farm store that includes his home-produced cabbage, pumpkins and turnips as well as an array of organic cheeses, bio-beer and even vegetarian dog food.
"I may not have gotten rich out of this, but I'm rich in my heart," Paque says. "You know, there are farmers who have to wear a mask when they go to their fields, when they should be breathing the good, clean air."