The European Commission is due in September to reconsider the EU’s rules on organic farming, including a likely review of certification standards and an assessment of the potential risks posed by genetically modified crops.
Efficient resource use is seen as crucial to meeting food demand while taming consumption of energy, water and other resources. But agriculture and industry, for instance, are enormous consumers of resources.
Globally, farming accounts for 80% of freshwater consumption, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, and in the more arid regions of the Middle East, Northern Africa and Central Asia, it approaches 90% - levels that the FAO says are unsustainable. In Europe, 29% or consumption is for agriculture, whereas 55% is withdrawn by industry.
With global population expected to grow from 7 billion today to 9 billion by mid-century, experts warn that at current rates of water consumption, combined with mounting demand for food crops and plant-based fuels, many parts of the world are on an unsustainable path of resource use.
Organics advocates say their production methods are gentler on the land, natural resources and wildlife.
The Commission’s forthcoming roadmap could open the door to update a 2007 regulation and a decade-old action plan on organic farming, a tiny but politically important farm sector in the EU.
Organic farmers were largely exempted from changes to the post-2013 Common Agricultural Policy, agreed at the end of June, though many environmental groups expressed dismay that the future CAP didn’t go further in compelling conventional farmers to adopt natural growing practices.
>> Read: CAP 2014-2020: A long road to reform
Europe’s leading organic farm group, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, or IFOAM, has welcomed the upcoming roadmap as a potential to strengthen the sector.
“The Commission’s review of the legislative and policy and framework for organic food and farming provides the opportunity to build on the success of the organic sector,” Christopher Stopes, president of IFOAM EU, said in a statement at the European Organic Congress in Vilnius last month.
Stopes called for “the development of the organic regulation in a way that enables expansion – more land organically farmed, more organic food eaten by all European citizens. This bold ambition depends on innovation and well informed development. A new organic action plan can lay the foundations for this whilst the new CAP is implemented and new legislative proposals for organic regulation are made.”
Organic farming remains a tiny part of European agriculture despite strong national support programmes in Austria, Sweden, Estonia and a few other countries. Some 10.6 million hectares – or 2.2% of EU farmland - is organic, according to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, in Frick, Switzerland.
Organic farming distinguishes itself from conventional agriculture in its restricted use of fertilisers and insecticides for crops and anitibiotics for livestock; a ban on genetically modified crops; an emphasis on crop rotation and native plants to protect soil quality; and allowing farm animals to roam free and eat a diet of pasture grasses or organic feed.
Farmers who want to promote their production as ‘organic’ must comply with the EU’s planting and husbandry rules.
The upcoming roadmap, due to be outlined in September, is expected to look at several policy areas, including:
- Enforcement and monitoring of organic foods certification and labelling;
- Setting international standards on organic production in trade matters
- The impact of genetically modified seeds on organic production, with cross-fertilisation a major concern to organic producers.
- September 2013: Commission expected to unveil roadmap on organic production
- 1 Jan. 2014: New CAP due to enter into force, but delays in the approval process will likely postpone implementation until 2015.