Commission’s proposal for stricter thresholds in organic farming opposed

Pesticide use in organic farming is one of the factors that is likely to cause disagreement. [Austin Valley/Flickr]

The European Commission is considering stricter pesticide limits for organic products. The organic sector and the European Parliament are not in agreement. EURACTIV’s partner Tagesspiegel reports.

The sale of organic products is a booming business. According to the European Commission, the presence of organic products on the European market has quadrupled in the past decade. However, this increased production has led consumers to question whether everything that glitters is actually gold. What is actually organic? Several scandals in the industry have shaken consumer faith in producers.

In Italy, over 700,000 tonnes of flour, soy food and dried fruits were sold for years as organic produce, even though they came from conventional farming. At the end of 2011, the Italian authorities cracked down on these instances of fraud, the sellers of which had imported their produce from, among others, Romania and other Eastern European countries. Some of these goods also found their way on to the German market.

>>Read: New EU regulation could curb organic farming

The European Court of Auditors highlighted deficiencies in the control system

The following year, the ECA published a report criticising the organic sector’s control system. The Commission has since launched a complete revision process of the regulation.

The EU law on organic farming dates back to 1991 and was revised in 2009. It sets out the minimum standards for organic production. Products that satisfy these criteria are permitted to display the EU organic logo.

EU organic logoEU organic logo

In March of last year, the Commission presented its draft revision of the organic regulation. “The Commission is looking for more and better organic farming in the EU,” said then-EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolo?.

At the time, he praised the work of his Directorate General (DG AGRI) by saying that “the package is good for consumers and good for farmers”. However, organic farmers have a different opinion on the matter and see it as Brussels’ attempt to curtail their influence over the market.

Häusling warns against making organic and pollutant-free synonymous

A lengthy legislative process followed Ciolo?’ initial press release, involving numerous stakeholders in Berlin and Brussels. The real acid test will come in the next week when the European Parliament will decide whether or not to adopt the executive’s proposal.

A sticking point may prove to be Brussels’ insistence that organic farmers impose stricter limits on pesticide use in comparison to conventional farming.

The Commission expects products that are marketed as organic to maintain the same low threshold to which baby food has to adhere. “It would be problematic to define organic as pollutant-free,” said Greens MEP Martin Häusling.

>>Read: Hormone disrupters found in two thirds of French lettuce

On Wednesday (7 October), experts hope to be on the same page as one another.

Häusling, as a rapporteur on the revision of the organic regulation, is responsible for producing an opinion on the Commission’s proposal that represents the entire Parliament. He intends to meet with his colleagues who are in charge of the dossiers of other parliamentary groups in Strasbourg.

“We want to work with the two largest groups,” said Häusling, by which he means the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

If all goes well, Häusling’s opinion will find a majority on the 13 October in the Committee on Agriculture, after which the proceedings between the Commission, European agricultural ministers and the Parliament can begin, and the details of the new revision can be hashed out.

>>Read: Amid growing demand, German organic farming suffers first decline

Häusling, a trained farmer himself, can count on a lot of parliamentary support for his rejection of stricter limits in organic production, such as synthetic pesticide levels. “There should not be separate thresholds for organic products,” said CDU MEP Norbert Lins, who is the EPP’s delegate in charge of the organic regulation revision.

Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein offers a similar viewpoint. The President of the Organic Food Production Alliance has nothing against laboratory analysis, which can help establish what is and what is not organic produce. Such sampling is already a requirement of the current organic regulation. Löwenstein believes that separate thresholds limits for organic farming would be a mistake.

The president of the alliance warned that organic farming would be made near-impossible by the proposed changes. Additionally, pesticide contamination from neighbouring fields, which may be farmed conventionally, cannot be ruled out. Such a risk would be of particular relevance to organic wine producers, whose holdings are often of a smaller size.

Worldwide standards based on EU model rejected

Löwenstein also has concerns about another point of the Commission’s revised text. Tighter control of organic-food imports from non-EU third countries is also on the cards, and the Commission would be responsible for controlling these imports and making sure they comply with EU standards.

On the one hand, Löwenstein finds it reasonable that the EU authorities do not want to mess too much with the current rules in force, which state that imports from non-EU countries that respect EU standards can be made without restrictions. Prime examples are Costa Rica, Switzerland and the USA.

But which guidelines should be enforced when, for example, pineapples are imported from Uganda, where the standards governing production are not comparable to the EU’s? “The Commission has since realised that this is not possible,” said Löwenstein.

Instead of a global harmonisation of testing methods, he suggested that in the future the European Union should align its standards with those of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), which differ worldwide between regions.

Löwenstein was also unsure why a revision of the organic regulation is being carried out so soon, following the last one, in 2009. He concluded that the revision would result in “tremendous effort and legal uncertainty for the organic sector.”

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