New EU regulation could curb organic farming

Victims of conventional agriculture: Chickens raised for meat are often fattened to a preferred slaughter weight of 1.6-2 kg. Many of the animals do not even survive the intensive fattening process. [Stefan Bröckling/Flickr]

As demand for organic products continues to grow among Europeans, the supply of sustainably manufactured and animal-friendly foods is struggling to keep up, experts indicate, warning that a new EU amendment could widen this gap. EURACTIV Germany reports.

For several years, the market for organic food products has been booming and not only in Germany, the pioneer of organic farming. Europe has seen the market quadruple in size over the past decade.

According to EU numbers, around 5.5% of total farmland within the bloc is used for organic cultivation. But in recent years, the supply of organic products has not been able to satisfy growing demand.

Organic farming is associated with a greater cost than conventional agriculture techniques and at the same time yields are lower and subject to more fluctuation.

And these paradoxes could become more severe, critics warn. Several even predict a declining trend in organic agriculture due to stricter EU regulations. Shortly after the Jean-Claude Juncker Commission took office in Brussels, incoming Agriculture Minister Phil Hogan announced his intention to rework the EU’s Council Regulation on Organic Agriculture.

>>Read: EU reforms organic farming

In March 2014, the European Commission adopted legislative proposals for a new Regulation. The measure, which is expected to take effect in 2017, contains stricter rules for the production and import of organic products. As a result, it is likely to make it more difficult for conventional farmers to shift to organic agriculture practices, or even cause many organic producers to switch back to conventional farming.

More research instead of stricter regulation

In Germany, displeasure over the new guidelines is considerable. Already in October of last year, all party factions in the Bundestag’s Committee on Food and Agriculture expressed clear opposition to a complete overhaul of the EU Regulation.

Organic agriculture in Europe has already been progressing far too slowly, critics complained, saying chances for development should not be hindered by excessive legal barriers.

But the last word has not yet been spoken, as the EU’s Council of Ministers and European Parliament still have yet to deliberate over the new legislation.

“The Council of Ministers has already tabled amendment recommendations,” said Felix Bloch from the DG Agriculture in the European Commission. And Hogan also understands that some of the Commission’s demands were too high, he indicated.

The new proposal promises to create clearer requirements for organic products by means of lifting certain special regulations and exceptions, the ban on growing organic and conventional crops side-by-side, and stronger controls on imported organic products.

The measures are meant to restore the trust of consumers, who are unsettled by fraud scandals and the flood of organic labels.

“There is real competition between ever-newer organic labels and sustainable indications,” said Urs Niggli from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FIBL). At the same time he warned of an impending phase of stagnation for organic agriculture.

To increase the amount of yield, which is currently at 50-90% of conventional cultivation, more innovation is needed to develop better fertilisation techniques and breeding of robust species, the agriculture researcher said.

Hardly any investments in an ambitious goal

According to the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), 6.4% of Germany’s total farmland was managed according to the principles of organic cultivation in 2013.

Nevertheless, the Federal Government hopes to increase this amount to meet a target set by former Agriculture Minister Renate Künast. The goal is for organic farming to cover 20% of all agricultural land.

But the target’s existence is hardly noticeable. Germany invests less than 1% of its research funding to research on solutions for organic cultivation, Niggli said. The Bundestag, Germany’s lower house, recently criticised the German Government for publicly announcing its desire to support organic agriculture but then including no additional measures for strengthening organic agriculture in the 2015 budget.

“There is no way the 20% target can be reached within the next years, if it remains unclear what the EU amendment looks like,” said Clemens Neumann from the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. The farmers, he argued, need planning security and more incentives for switching to organic farming.

Organic products should not be premium goods

Martin Häusling is an agriculture specialist of the Green political group in the European Parliament and one of the leading politicians in charge of the Parliament’s overhaul of the new organic agriculture Regulation. “The Commission’s proposal would make organic farming an elite project. But the crucial question is how the organic sector can come out of that niche,” Häusling explained. Instead, organic products are imported from far away, making it difficult to screen their organic quality, he said.

Still, precise control of domestic German as well as imported products should remain in place, Häusling advised.

Nevertheless, he said he is hesitant towards repeated calls for a Brussels-based agency to investigate fraud cases. “To do this, Brussels would have to have its own team of experts for inspecting organics,” Häusling contended, “without real experts it would only result in inspection of inspection.”

Organic farming is a particularly resource-conserving, environmentally and animal friendly form of agriculture. It avoids practices like fertilising with minerals and chemical-synthetic herbicides, and limits the number of animals depending on a certain holding area. 

The EU’s organic market has quadrupled in the past 10 years. It is for this reason that the European Commission is seeking to update the sector’s regulations. In 2013, the Commission led a public dialogue on organic farming and observed a high demand for organic food.

On 24 March 2014, the Commission proposed a new regulation on organic farming, the labeling of organic products, and a plan of action for the future of the organic sector. The objective is to reinforce rules regarding testing and producing organic food sold in the EU.

According to European Commission data, there are more than 186,000 organic farms in Europe. Around 5.5% of all EU farmlands are used for to grow organic crops.

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