Today we welcome a guest post from Venus Bivar, author of Organic Resistance: The Struggle over Industrial Farming in Postwar France, publishing this month from UNC Press.
France is often held up as a bastion of gastronomic refinement and as a model of artisanal agriculture and husbandry. But French farming is not at all what it seems. Countering the standard stories of gastronomy, tourism, and leisure associated with the French countryside, Venus Bivar portrays French farmers as hard-nosed businessmen preoccupied with global trade and mass production. With a twin focus on both the rise of big agriculture and the organic movement, Bivar examines the tumult of postwar rural France, a place fiercely engaged with crucial national and global developments.
Organic Resistance is now available in both print and ebook editions.
The Racist Origins of Organic Farming
The first French men to organise themselves in opposition to industrial farming, and they were indeed all men, included a neo-fascist, a handful of eugenicists, and several anti-Semites. The will to produce healthy food that was free of chemical residues stemmed from the desire to return the French race to its natural position of superiority. Pure food would build pure French bodies.
The racial politics of the organic model have in recent years come under scrutiny. Scholars and critics alike have argued that organic consumption goes hand in hand with white privilege. The average Whole-Foods shopper or farmers-market enthusiast tends to be white. In short, it takes money to be a foodie, and in the United States, wealth is a function of race.
With my own work, I make an important contribution to this discussion by highlighting how race fits into the conversation from a different perspective. Organic farming in France in the 1950s was not white, at least not entirely, because of class reasons. It was white because its practitioners were proponents of eugenics who believed in the purity and the superiority of the French race. This is of course a different genealogy of racism. But just as class was not unimportant in the early years of organic farming, the language of purity remains central to organic discourse in the twenty-first century.
Henri-Charles Geffroy was a pioneer in the early organics movement in France. He was also a eugenicist and an anti-Semite. He regularly named as an influence the Nobel Prize winning surgeon Alexis Carrel, who had promoted eugenics while serving the fascist Vichy government. In 1948, Geffroy began a food co-op and named it La Vie Claire (Clear Life). Within a decade he had expanded the co-op to include several brick and mortar stores, and by 1965, his operation had grown to eighty stores nationwide.
Today, La Vie Claire is one of the largest health-food chains in France. Contemporary French shoppers might be shocked to learn that the store originally stocked not only organic brown bread, but also white-supremacist literature. Many on the extreme right had been barred from public media in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. As a neo-fascist himself, Geffroy provided them with an outlet, publishing their antisemitic and pro-eugenicist materials, and distributing them through his expanding network of health-food stores.
Why should we care that the political origins of organic farming were marred by eugenics and fascism? The organic movement shifted squarely to the left in the 1970s and abandoned its right-wing racist roots. But it is not that simple. Most contemporary proponents of organic production do not align themselves with fascist antisemitism. But they do value purity. Through the idiom of purification, organic supporters, both left and right, have been instrumental in cementing the connection between small producers, the rural landscape, and national identity. And this appeal to purity has in turn been vulnerable to appropriation by contemporary right-wing politics, not only in France, but across all of western Europe. As European xenophobia continues to rise in tandem with growing Muslim populations, more work needs to be done to understand the connections between the rural landscape, national identity, and racial purity.
 For example, see: Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman, eds, Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (MIT Press, 2001); Natasha Bowens, The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming (New Society Publishers, 2015).
Venus Bivar is assistant professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis.