EU eyes increased role for organic farming

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With the EU's future farm policy expected to have an increased focus on protecting biodiversity, promoting sustainable farming and achieving CO2 reduction goals, organic farming may be worth a closer look, EU officials said.

"There is a growing interest in organic farming, particularly in the context of talks on ecosystem services," said Ladislav Miko, director at the European Commission's environment directorate, addressing a seminar on the role of organic farming in combating climate change on 20 April.

His comments come as the EU is preparing a major overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for the post-2013 era, in a bid to tap into the increasingly recognised potential of agriculture to mitigate climate change and deliver various other environmental benefits, such as improved soil and water quality (EURACTIV 26/01/10EURACTIV 28/01/10).

A Commission staff working document accompanying the 2004 EU action plan on organic farming underlines that its main benefits include the protection of soil, nature, biodiversity and habitats. Restricted use of pesticides also improves water quality, it notes.

According to the EU executive, only 4% of EU farmland is currently used by organic farming. However, in some countries organic farming covers up to 15-20%.

Anna Barnett from the Commission's environment directorate stressed that the focus should be on reducing pollution from the 96% of farm land currently used for conventional farming. She noted that 50% of France's drinking water, for example, needs to be cleaned of pesticides before it is fit to drink.

"We also need more money for rural development measures, for organic farming as well as fairer distribution of payments," Barnett said.  

Importance of soil quality

"The EU needs to do something on soil," Miko continued, echoing Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik's pledge to get member states to acknowledge the need for EU action on soil (EURACTIV 16/03/10). Land management increasingly affects cross-border issues like climate change, biodiversity and water pollution, he argued.

The EU executive has already noted that European farmers must slash agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20% by 2020, primarily by producing biomass and storing carbon dioxide in the soil (EURACTIV 16/09/09).

Miko stressed that the land covered by agriculture in the EU is so huge that any small shift towards more sustainable farming practices per hectare would significantly increase overall carbon capture and "make a huge difference".

Better habitat management by farms, like for organic farming, would increase the resilience of farming systems and thus help adaptation to climate change, he added.

Positions

Christopher Stopes, president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements' (IFOAM) EU branch, noted that good soil is of key importance, as food production depends on high amounts of organic matter in soil.

Urs Niggli, director of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), said organic farming actually builds up soil fertility and matter, and that organic agriculture's environmental services are "huge".

In addition to better soil fertility, organic fields also have a 30% wider variety of species, a 50% greater abundance of beneficial animals and an abundance of bees compared to conventionally farmed fields, Niggli continued.

They also have increased capacity to hold water and higher water content in the soil, he added.

Organic farming target?

Organic products represents 2% of the EU food market and 2% of EU farmers have opted for this type of farming, noted Jean-François Hulot, head of the organic farming unit at the European Commission's agriculture department.

There is currently no specific target at EU level for organic farming, nor is there a budget or payments, he said.

Having a target for organic farming is "not a stupid idea" as there is already strong demand for one, Hulot said. But if such a target were established, "we would put into question the market-driven approach of agriculture," he warned.

Food security

As participants debated the role of organic farming in ensuring food security, Marco Contiero, EU policy director for sustainable agriculture at Greenpeace, argued that there is far too much emphasis placed on the assumption that we need to increase food production by 70% by 2050. Since this assumption was accepted as general knowledge, the debate has wrongly focused on how to increase production, he said.

Meanwhile, there are much more important issues related to food security, like how to develop drought-resilient farm systems, not just drought-resistant crops, he continued.

Ladislav Miko noted that intensive agricultural production is only a couple of decades old and nobody knows "how long we can continue producing intensively," as such farming degrades the soil while remaining dependent on soil quality. "But I know it will have an end," he said.

Current organic yields remain far below those of traditional farming methods, which use fertilisers and pesticides.

Meanwhile, Jean-François Hulot argued that "we should not think that organic farming will always have lower yields. This can change".

As organic farming requires less input of expensive petrochemical products, Miko even suggested that organic food might become cheaper than "traditional food" once oil prices increase as oil supplies begin to dry up.

Background

Organic farming is a method of production which emphasises environmental protection and animal welfare considerations. It avoids or drastically reduces the use of synthetic chemical inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides, additives and medicinal products.

When the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was created, there was no such thing as organic farming. Organic agriculture received official recognition in 1991 when the first EU regulation on organic farming and a corresponding labelling system were adopted.

In response to "the rapid increase in the number of farmers producing organically and strong demand from consumers," the European Commission adopted an EU action plan for organic food and farming in June 2004.

The action plan set out initiatives aimed at developing the market for organic food and improving standards by increasing efficiency, transparency and consumer confidence.

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