Despite measures, organic farming remains tiny in EU

Recent figures by Eurostat show organic farmers represented only a tiny share (2%) of the total number of EU-15 farmers in 2002 and that this proportion has remained unchanged since the turn of the century.

Organic farmers represented only 2% of EU-15 producers in 2003 and their share has remained unchanged in the past years, recent statistics have shown. Organic farms reached a meagre 3.8% of total European cultivated land in 2002.

The figures were published by Eurostat one year after the Commission presented a “European action plan for organic food and farming” designed to boost smaller-scale sustainable production in a highly intensive European agricultural sector.

The plan included a list of 21 measures including marketing campaigns and support programmes to farmers as well as training and research.

It remains to be seen what effects the plan will have but the figures published by Eurostat for the period 1998-2002 suggest even continued growth will keep organic farming at modest proportions.

According to Eurostat, the surface of agricultural land devoted to organic farming has more than doubled in five years, reaching 3.8% of the total utilised agricultural area in 2002, up from 1.8% in 1998. Some member states, led by the UK (75%) and Greece (49.6%), showed impressive annual growth rates in organic farm land over the period from 1998 to 2002.

But the strong growth figures in some countries do little to hide the delays in the member states with the largest agricultural sectors. With the exception of Italy – which has the EU’s highest number of producers and hectares, – agricultural heavyweights such as Spain and France remain laggards. Although they have roughly doubled their share since 1998, the proportion of land dedicated to organic farming remained small in France (2%) and Spain (3%) in 2003. For its part, Italy grew from a 4% share in 1998 to about 8% in 2003.

Announcing a series of support measures in February 2004, the French agriculture ministry admitted that the country was experiencing a "clear delay", ranking 13th in the EU-15 in its share of agricultural land devoted to organic farming. 

The ministry pointed to a "lack of harmonisation in public support at European level" and to "very diverse" farm support systems across EU member states to justify the delay. In particular, it explained that farmers were under excessive regulatory pressure by a "French" and "elitist" interpretation of EU directives on organic farming which was laid down in a document called the 'CC REPAB F'.

According to the ministry, national over-regulation caused higher production costs for French farmers compared to their European competitors, inevitably leading to "penalising situations" and "deadlock".

In June 2004, the European Commission adopted a list of 21 policy measures to promote organic farming in the EU. The measures are part of the 2003 reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which is designed to cut over-production by decoupling direct payments from the quantities produced. 

The reformed CAP also seeks to improve the integration of environmental considerations which form part of its second pillar - the rural development policy. Organic farming is a full part of this policy and is entitled to direct payments as well as price support under the new CAP.

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