Organic sector disappointed by Commission proposal

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for national debates to identify possible solutions in the run-up to the UN Food Systems Summit in September. [Joanna Poe/Flickr]

The European Commission’s latest plans to reform the production and labelling of organic produce, presented in March, have met with harsh criticism from the French organic sector, which says it fails to respond to the real issues. EURACTIV France reports

The Commission’s attempts to reform organic farming regulations aimed both to ease certain controls and establish stricter production conditions. But France’s organic farmers have not been impressed by the proposed changes, largely designed to reassure consumers, which they say may end by hampering production.

The EU’s organic sector has experienced booming growth in recent years, with 186,000 producers working 9.6 million hectares of farmland in accordance with the organic regulations in 2011. The increase in demand has been so fast that the EU has been forced to import organic produce.

>> Read: Organic farming has grown rapidly, says EU

The organic sector and the European Commission both want to promote the development of organic farming, but disagree on how this should be achieved.

Étienne Gangneron, the president of the Organic Agency, has described the Commission proposal as illogical. “The existing legislation can certainly be improved upon, but the reforms put forward by the Commission have surprised us all. They are not what the sector or the member states were asking for. This is a Commission initiative, and it generally makes no sense,” he said, adding that the public consultation was largely ignored by the European executive when it came to preparing the final text.

>> Read: EU reforms organic farming

Mixed production essential for the organic sector’s survival

The European Commission’s proposed reforms include placing a ban on mixed farming; the cultivation of organic and non-organic produce on the same farm. Farmers have dismissed this regulation as nonsensical, saying that organic and conventional crops are not always mixed by choice, but that crop mixture can be unintentional. According to Étienne Gangneron, 25% of French farmers practice mixed farming.

The Organic Agency chief believes this reform package will stunt the development of the sector, leading to a reduction in organic production within the EU and an increase in imports; a view that appears to be in line with the general consensus across Europe.

Testing: another stumbling block

The reform package also includes a proposal to lower the test thresholds and the level of analysis that organic farms are required to undergo. But according to Gangneron, organic farmers “willingly” subject their businesses to the current annual compulsory test and unannounced spot check.

For him, the controls placed on imported organic produce represent a greater problem. There are about 300 different organisations regulating organic produce in Europe, and he says that the harmonisation of standards and laboratory testing is essential “in order to reassure consumers”.

Taking on the Commission at its own game

The Organic Agency president believes the minimalist construction of the reform package was a deliberate move on the part of the Commission, who intended to fill it out later with delegated acts. “The problem with delegated acts is that the Commission can try to exercise its power over legislation after the fact,” he said.

Organic farmers did not want to reject the text outright, as it does contain some “substantial improvements, particularly in terms of testing and certification”. But they are also not happy to leave the issue there.

In Gangeron’s opinion, France’s organic farmers intend to “take on the Commission at its own game. The Commission made a mistake, but overall we are not opposed to the plans. However, we will make so many amendments that they will get a real sense of what we want”. 

Organic production is an overall system of farm management and food production that aims at sustainable agriculture, the production of high quality products and the use of processes that do not harm the environment or human, plant and animal health.

The classification of a product as organic depends on it being produced in compliance with this system, rather than on the characteristics of the product itself.

The European market for organic food amounts to about €20 billion annually, representing an estimated 1.5% share of the entire food market. 

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