German MEP: Deadlock on organic farming reform ‘odd’

Martin Häusling [European Parliament]

Sales of organic produce are on the up in Europe. In 2015 alone, they rose by 13%, so it is no surprise the industry is struggling to approve proposed reforms to the EU’s eco-regulation. The sector claims there is little improvement on the table. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Martin Häusling is a German Greens MEP and is a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.

He spoke with EURACTIV.de’s Editor-in-Chief Ama Lorenz.

The EU has been regulating the production, processing and labelling of organic products for 25 years. Its reform has been discussed for three years. On Monday (5 June), a trilogue on the issue failed. What was the problem?

The Maltese Presidency of the EU cancelled the trilogue with a day’s notice. Their justification was that there was no agreement within the Council. We knew there were difficulties but the fact we didn’t even meet and there were no further explanations is odd. A letter backed by all the political groups has been penned, asking for negotiations to be reopened.

Where has the greatest resistance come from?

Unfortunately, there is not just one reason but 17 different ones. The Nordic countries want more derogations for greenhouse cultivation, the southern countries want faster implementation of uniform standards and the Eastern European countries do not want databases. In terms of European regulation, it is fatal when concerned parties cannot shelve their national interests or show greater flexibility.

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Could the concerns of individual member states have been better addressed during the three-year-long negotiations?

The main problem, which must be made clear, is that the Commission came up with a draft that was not acceptable to either the Council or the Parliament. We in the Parliament worked with the Council on new rules. In the meantime, interests in the eco-regulation diverged. Although we have one common regulation, the 28 member states differ greatly in terms of implementation. We really wanted to change that with the reform. But once rules are put in place, countries and interest groups are very sensitive when it comes to abandoning national practices through EU-level regulation.

Even interest groups in Germany’s bio-sector are against new regulations and restrictions. They claim that the EU rules would lead to lack of control. Where does this opinion stem from?

The German associations were against new regulation from the beginning. The reasons for their stance have been constantly changing. Half a year ago it was pesticide cocktails. We’ve solved that problem now. The implementation of the controls listed in the draft proposal are now being criticised. I believe, and so does the Parliament, that it may not be the optimal solution but neither is different to what is currently required. This uncontrollability issue is mere speculation.

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So do you maintain that the current draft is fully developed?

Of course, there are aspects with which the Parliament is not satisfied.

Such as?

In terms of pesticides, we would have wanted a more far-reaching proposal than the compromise that is on the table. We did not want to wait five years for the report. Instead, we wanted to send a clear message that the conventional sector would be committed and that organic farms would be protected from the effects of pesticides.

The organic sector survives through the good grace of consumer demand and trust in organic quality. Is the reaction to the regulation reform of the organic associations against the interests of their consumers?

That is going too far, I think. I think that the old regulation suited them, that business was booming and that they have been relatively spared from scandal in recent years. There is therefore no great pressure on the German bio-sector for change. In addition, the German associations have constantly developed the rules further.

But we still have the problem of uniform European standards. That is where the EU comes in. It’s a problem that becomes clear when we talk about imports. There are 64 different organic standards in Europe. Of course, harmonisation will cost time and money, as well as needing more control maybe. But I think that increasing import pressure in the EU means it is appropriate for us to have uniform competition rules.

It seems like the Parliament wants to open a backdoor for imports from third countries, through controversial free trade agreements like CETA and TTIP.

When it comes to compliance with European standards for imports, we have always been in agreement with the associations, especially in terms of TTIP and CETA. Now some of them are saying that it actually isn’t that important. But you don’t have to look at Canada or the United States. A lot of grain comes from countries like Ukraine or Kazakhstan, at half the price of European produce. It’s clear that European standards are not being met. Europe’s organic farmers have to comply with strict rules and regulations. That works when we are talking about a Romanian farmer but not when you add his Ukrainian neighbour into the mix, who might only be farming the field next door. That is why there have to be uniform import rules for organic produce, so we can end this distortion of competition.

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What are the next steps?

Commissioner Hogan will hold a discussion with ministers on 12 June. Parliament believes that the deadline is the end of the current EU presidency, so the regulation either needs to be adopted or abandoned by then.

So without an agreement by the end of June, the reform will be off the table?

That would be the worst result and we would be left with the original regulation and all of its weaknesses. A completely new proposal, as some associations have demanded, is not going to happen. We MEPs are in agreement that we want to conclude this. That is why we hope to be able to meet before the summer break in trilogue and negotiate the points of contention in the current proposal, like the control mechanisms criticised by the German associations.