Organic farming in the EU needs passion, clear rules and controls

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An organic farm in Ringstead, a village in the English county of Norfolk. [Ian/Flickr]

Food security and global peace go hand in hand. The EU’s proposed organic food regulation is not perfect, but it is a step towards the sustainable food system we need, write a group of Green MEPs.

Claude Turmes, José Bové, Molly Scott-Cato, Martin Häusling, Bart Staes and Philippe Lamberts are MEPs in the European Parliament’s Greens/EFA group.

At the end of June, after three years of tough negotiations, a political deal was reached on new European rules for organic farming. The representatives of all 28 EU-countries are due to vote on this consensus, reached by the member states, the European Commission and the team of the European Parliament under Green leadership on 20th November.

While this deal might not be perfect, it is certainly an improvement in quite some fields and we want to see it get strong political support. Why? Because we feel it is crucial to delivering continued growth for organic agriculture while still maintaining its principles and the hard-earned trust of consumers.

The growth of the organic food sector is a true success story. What started out as small, pioneering farming movements in the early sixties has grown into a major agricultural force. At a time when a series of scandals has shown the health and environmental risks of the current food system, organic agriculture offers tangible solutions.

When it comes to feeding of your loved ones, especially your kids, trust is key. Consumers’ trust in organic products is reflected in sales figures: even in years of economic downturn and harsh austerity, more and more people all over Europe buy organic products, despite them often being more expensive.

Growth of organic food sales stifled by ‘unjustified’ prices

Organic food sales in supermarkets are booming, but excessive price mark-ups are restricting the sector’s appeal and holding back its growth, according to a study published on Thursday (29 August).

Booming

Indeed, the global organic market is booming, with an annual turnover of almost €77bn. Growth rates are particularly high in North America and northern Europe. In the USA, organic products account for 5% of the food market and last year was another record year for European organic food markets, with sales of €24bn. Several European organic food sector organisations such as IFOAM, report glittering growth figures for 2016 in Sweden, Belgium and The Netherlands, and organics showed for example 20% growth for the French market, almost 10% in Germany and 7% in the United Kingdom.

Where is this success coming from? Organic food is loved by consumers because of its taste and health record. But more and more people also recognise that organics are good for the health of ecosystems and the soils in particular. And in times of economic distress for thousands of farmers, organic agriculture has also proven to be more profitable.

Research shows that organic agriculture is “significantly more profitable than conventional agriculture”, yielding profits of up to 35% more and with better cost/benefit ratios. Moreover, its environmental benefits mean that it can make a bigger contribution to sustainably feeding the world. However, despite good growth and these clear policy benefits, the organic market still only occupies 1% of global cropland and 6% of EU-agricultural space.

Whether organic agriculture can continue to expand will likely be determined by its economic competitiveness. But if there is to be a genuinely level playing field then ‘external costs’ need to be included in the price of food. When these are taken into account, organic emerges as the clear winner.

Ballooning health costs

Here, we need to look not only at the quantity but at the quality. What is the value of enormous amounts of food when that food is often of poor quality and contributes to ill health? Big agro-chemical firms make the case that restrictions on pesticides will push up production costs, leaving food prices higher. But a recent report from the ‘Global Alliance for the Future of Food’ debunked this false economy: “Alongside many positive impacts, our food systems have increasingly affected health through multiple, interconnected pathways, generating severe human and economic costs.”

Echoing an argument made in a UN report earlier this year, their report makes an urgent call for reforming food and farming systems to protect human health: “the health impacts generated by food systems are severe, widespread, and closely linked to industrial food and farming practices.” The estimated costs for public health – think for example of antibiotic resistance and endocrine-disrupting pesticides – are gigantic. The widespread use of pesticides in conventional European agriculture was estimated to be the costliest of all exposure to chemical substances: 104 billion euro per year. The public health costs connected to modern industrial agriculture are ballooning: into the trillions. But what is really staggering is not the figures, but that it’s being largely ignored by our governments.

But if we let the organic sector grow,  everything will be solved, right? Well, it’s not as simple as that. While demand is growing fast, the supply is too low.  This creates the risk that the growing imports of organic products, which come with considerable profits, may lead to fraud. This could seriously undermine the trust of consumers in the solid reputation of organics.

Food security is peace

This is where the new EU rules come in. It all began with an initiative of former EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Dacian Ciolos who launched a proposal for a new organic farming regulation in 2013. He also saw increased risks for fraud in the organic food chain and feared that this gap could put the organic success story at risk. He suggested strengthening precautionary measures and controls, especially for imports from third countries, making rules for production and processing more precise and taking measures against possible fraud throughout the organic food chain.

The move was strongly opposed by parts of the German organic sector. They were of the opinion that the regulation currently in force is in principle working well and that it would be sufficient to adapt it to new developments. However, that is exactly what the new Organic Regulation is expected to do, in fields like breeding and the availability of organic seeds, controls on imports and production, precautionary measures to avoid contamination with pesticides, and animal welfare.

In the past six decades, the role of the organic farming movement has been to challenge an increasingly unsustainable oil-based farming system, dependent on agro-chemicals, agro-industrial meat production and imports of animal feed from many parts of the world.

Just as Green political movements have been advocating for decades that renewable energy sources are the solution to our common energy and climate challenges, organic and agro-ecological food systems will provide the solutions for the current agro-chemical production problems.

Like all compromises, the new organic regulation is far from perfect. But it is necessary to plant the seeds for the sustainable future of organic agriculture. And therefore food security. And therefore peace. For all these reasons, we hope on a positive outcome on November 20th.