EU member states agreed on Monday (20 November) to a new set of rules for organic farming, simplifying the system and creating a level playing field for EU produce and imports. The European Parliament’s agriculture committee will vote on the rules on Wednesday.
Organic farming is a dynamic part of the EU’s agri-food sector. It grows by some 400,000 hectares per year and is now worth €27billion, according to the European Commission. Yet the sector is currently governed by piecemeal rules set up to two decades ago, when organic was a small, niche market.
“What everyone agreed on was that the current rules – which are 20 years old now – were not fit for purpose and were likely to hinder rather than help the development of this growing sector,” said European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan.
These rules do not provide a fair and level playing field for all EU farmers, nor do they give consumers certainty, as they are full of exceptions and derogations enforced at national or even sub-national level.
On top of this, an overly complex system of equivalence for imported organic products creates a significant administrative burden and potentially undermines domestic producers. The more than 60 organic schemes around the world that are certified equivalent to the EU’s own often tolerate the use of chemicals or practices not permitted in Europe, which can place EU farmers at a disadvantage.
The new rules will address these concerns by harmonising standards and applying one system to all EU and non-EU farmers. This will provide all EU consumers with the same quality guarantee, wherever their food comes from.
“We are now one step closer to delivering a better deal for organic farmers and consumers,” said Martin Häusling, a German MEP and agriculture spokesman for the Greens/EFA group. “With a strong majority in favour of the new regulation, there is now a consensus in favour of bringing organic regulations up to speed so that they address the needs of this rapidly growing market.”
Protecting foreign “partners”
Some 90% of organic food produced in the world is consumed in western Europe and North America. But according to IFOAM EU, the European organic farmers’ association, 82% of all certified organic farmers are based in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Eduardo Cuoco, IFOAM EU director, told EURACTIV.com that exports of certified organic foods to the EU “provide livelihood for millions of small farmers in Latin America, Asia and Africa,” and that it was vital these links should be preserved.
“Organic agriculture and access to the European market provides those countries not only food security and income, but also contributes to the preservation and regeneration of local and regional ecosystem services.”
The IFOAM EU director encouraged the European institutions to iron out any problems with the new regulation that would harm foreign organic farmers – which are seen as “partners, not competitors” – and take into account differences in climate and regional conditions that may place them at a disadvantage.
Greater choice and flexibility
“Consumers will also benefit from greater choice, as the new rules will cover a wider variety of organic food and non-food items than in the past (such as salt, cork or essential oils),” said Hogan.
What is more, the EU executive says the flexibility allowed by the old system will be applied across the board in a fair way, for example by allowing derogations in specific circumstances, for limited time periods and for all organic producers and sectors equally.
“The temporary replacement of an organic ingredient by a non-organic one in cases of limited stocks will still be permitted,” the Commission said in a press release. “But they will now be limited in time, regularly assessed and if necessary applied to all producers, ensuring fair treatment for all.”
Organic certification for products grown in greenhouses or demarcated beds will be phased out over ten years from the entry into force of the new regulation, and no new derogations for such certification will be awarded.
The organic regulation was adopted by 19 member states, with opposition from the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Slovakia, Cyprus, Austria and Finland. Hungary, Germany and Belgium abstained.
Lawmakers in the European Parliament’s agriculture committee are due to vote on the regulation on Wednesday (22 November), ahead of a final plenary vote.
“I am convinced that the majority of the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development will now follow suit and support the compromise when it comes to a vote on Wednesday,” said Häusling.
If successfully adopted, the new rules will enter into force on 1 January, 2021.
Eduardo Cuoco, IFOAM EU director, said: "Since May 2017, many concerns highlighted by IFOAM EU have been taken into consideration and improvements have been made on the draft. In our opinion, the text, as it is now, still includes a number of inconsistencies, mistakes and obstacles that should be tackled before the final vote, e.g: the administrative burden will increase for Competent Authorities and control bodies.
"IFOAM EU calls for a strong commitment from the EU Institutions and the National Authorities to work hard with the sector to address all the weaknesses still present in the text and to simplify and lower the bureaucracy. Whatever the outcomes of the COMAGRI vote on the new organic regulation will be, it should be ensured that the regulatory framework for organic is consistent and implementable."