Commission: Organic farming ‘not enough’ to address food security

Corn crops [Jason Riedy/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Innovation – Feeding the world.

SPECIAL REPORT / Organic farming has a role to play in the new Common Agricultural Policy, but it cannot address the perplexing issue of food security, an EU spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, the innovation-driven GM industry feels marginalised, facing impossible hurdles in the EU.

Global population is expected to rise from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050, according to UN projections, meaning food production will have to double to meet nutritional needs.

In an effort to rise to this challenge, the new CAP for the period 2014-2020 is focused on innovation as well as environmental protection.

And organic farming will have a key role to play. It is recognised as an innovative and sustainable approach that produces high-quality food, whilst contributing to the environment, animal welfare and rural development.

But it won’t be enough to meet the challenge, according to the European Commission.

“Organic farming could certainly not address on its own the vast and perplexing issue of future food security,” said the EU spokesperson.

“The organic market, initially a niche market which grew bigger over the last decade gaining consumers’ confidence, managed to multiply by four its market share. Organics have undoubtedly a role to play in addressing food security, as a system which produces food that respects natural life cycles and the environment,” the EU source added.

CAP and innovation

In budget terms, the new CAP is more focused on innovation and environmental protection than the previous one. Innovation spending from the EU and national budgets for the period to 2020 will represent about 6% of the rural development budget which is about 1/5 of the overall CAP budget.

>>Read: Reformed CAP aims to respond to global food security challenge

In addition, the new Horizon 2020 Work Programme covering 2016-17 will directly provide €33 million for organic farming and a further €174 million is dedicated to projects in which organic agriculture should play a role.

On the other hand, there is little research funding for GMOs, due to the huge public opposition in Europe. In Italy, GMO research has not been allowed for over 10 years, according to the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI), a worldwide initiative of public sector scientists active in modern biotechnology research.

Over half of the EU member states have recently opted out of growing genetically modified (GM) crops on their land, which means that two-thirds of Europe’s arable land will remain GM free.

Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Italy, Hungary, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Malta and Slovenia rejected the GM crops while in Britain, only England will cultivate GM crops.

In addition, the European Parliament’s environmental committee rejected last week (13 October) a Commission-led compromise which allows member states to decide for themselves whether or not to import Genetically Modified Organisms for use in food and animal feed.

>>Read: MEPs reject GM crop compromise ‘on technical grounds’

Organic farming challenges

Marco Schlüter, director of the Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM EU), told EURACTIV that although the amount of land farmed organically was increasing, around 95% of agriculture in Europe is conventional.

“This means that organic farmers are often surrounded by farmers using inputs forbidden in organic and, despite measures taken to prevent contamination such as buffer zones, there is a risk,” he noted.

“IFOAM EU advocates for the polluter pays principle – those using the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers should pay for the effect they have on their neighbours, (drinking) water quality,  and biodiversity, just to name a few,” he said.

Another challenge for organic farmers, according to Schlüter, is that the demand for organic products is increasing at such a fast rate that it could widen further the gap between production and consumption, increasing imports from outside Europe and potentially creating a shortage in the market.

“For this reason it is important for governments to help their farmers benefit from consumer demand and transition to organic,” he stressed.

Commenting on the “innovation push” of the new CAP, Eric Gall, IFOAM EU policy manager, told EURACTIV that it should be better used to incentivise more farmers to increase their sustainability for example by converting to organic farming or taking up agroecological practices.

“The lack of prioritisation for organic across a host of policy measures in rural development programmes often acts as a major limiting factor for stimulating organic innovation in the agri-food sector,” he said, adding that there were a number of options to prioritise innovative approaches in areas such as farm advice and knowledge transfer, infrastructural investments and supply chain development.

Monsanto: We are “politically isolated”

Meanwhile, the innovation-driven GM crop industry feels it’s unwanted. Brandon Mitchener, Public Affairs Lead for Monsanto Europe, says that the GMO industry is “politically isolated” in Europe.

“The EU has chosen to fund NGOs that demonise GMOs, even though the EU’s own best scientists say they are perfectly safe. Years of such political hypocrisy have marginalised GM seeds in Europe to the point that most companies have given up trying to sell them here,” he said.

Referring to the main challenges of GMOs, he noted that in the EU, the industry faces “nearly impossible hurdles, starting with a regulatory review system that is highly political and costs more than €100 million per biotech trait–with no guarantee of market success”.

“No one has asked for permission to cultivate a new biotech trait in Europe in more than 10 years,” he underlined.

Asked where Monsanto failed in convincing half of the EU countries which opted out of growing GMs, Mitchener blamed the Greens and some NGOs.

Monsanto and other companies did everything they could have to try to educate people about GMOs. The European debacle isn’t the companies’ fault. It is the result of nearly 30 years of scaremongering by Greens and certain NGOs, and (a) lack of science-based decision-making.”

Similarly, Beat Späth, Director of Agricultural Biotechnology at EuropaBio, blamed EU politicians for being followers of “public opinion”.

He said that the EU heavily promoted untested organic farming while allowing national bans on cultivating GM crops that “have undergone strict safety assessments confirming they are (at least) as safe as conventional crops”.

“The ‘licence to ban’ the cultivation of safe and approved GMO crops is a very negative precedent of ‘politics over science’. In this sense, many politicians seem to have abdicated from their role as leaders in favour of becoming followers of ‘public opinion’ voiced by scaremongers,” he told EURACTIV.

He continued, saying that trillions of GM meals had been eaten over 19 years and that in 2014 alone, 18 million farmers planted biotech crops on 13% of the world’s arable land.

“Meanwhile, half of Europe chooses to turn the continent into a museum of agriculture without even asking its farmers,” he said.

Asked by EURACTIV the precise amount of EU money earmarked for research on GMOs the European Commission DG Health and Food Safety referred us to the DG Research, Science and Innovation and the latter, referred EURACTIV back to DG Health. 

TTIP and farming

Asked if the TTIP agreement could boost Monsanto’s position in the EU market, Mitchener said “not immediately”.

“Monsanto’s business in Europe is entirely focused on traditional seeds, which face no discrimination. TTIP will not affect that.”

On the other hand, Eric Gall told EURACTIV that IFOAM EU had concerns over EU-US trade pact. “IFOAM EU has concerns about TTIP because free trade agreements are risky for farmers and the food sector,” he said. “Even more so in times of crisis, and it could lead to a lowering of standards for food, for example, by forcing the EU to open its market to GMOs.”

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