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19/12/2017

Organic products are set afloat again

  • An agreement has been reached to align organic agriculture regulations inthe European Union

Ricardo Migueláñez. @rmiguelanez

More than three years after negotiations began, the European Union—the Council's 28 Member States and European Parliament—reached an agreement on the new organic standards which will regulate organic agricultural practices and products labeled as organic from Spain and non-EU countries. The regulation must still be formally approved, and it won't enter into force until some time down the road, on 1 January 2021, with a view to allowing producers, commercial partners and other agents enough time to adapt to the new framework.

Negotiations were very complicated, and the European Commission had to tread lightly in drafting the text to please some people and not upset others, requiring 18 inter-institutional meetings among the three parties (the Council, Parliament and the EC) in recent years. Even so, at the most recent meeting of the Special Committee on Agriculture (SCA), on November 22nd, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Slovakia, Austria, Cyprus and Finland voted against the proposed regulation, but abstentions by Hungry, Belgium and, in particular, Germany, which was the most reserved, were enough.

The European Commission's goal was to put an end to all of the exceptions that Member States had been applying in their specific organic agriculture regulatory standards. However, some were maintained, such as authorization for mixed farms (producers of organic and conventional foods) and the ability use conventional seeds and animals until 2035.

The new regulations for agriculture and organic products will update many of the regulations in force from over 20 years ago, reflecting the extensive changes that have occurred in the EU's organic sector. For the European Commission, this type of farming is no longer a small niche market; today it is one of the most dynamic segments of the farming industry, with a surface area that extends over approximately 400,000 hectares each year, an organic product market valued at 27 billion euros, almost 125% more than 10 years ago, and a growing number of organic farmers, which exceeded 271,500 (2015 data) and continues to rise.

The new organic regulation will apply to live and unprocessed agricultural products, including seeds and other plant reproductive material and processed agricultural products used as food and feed. Processed products can be labeled as organic only if at least 95% of the agricultural ingredients are organic.

What will change under this new reform?

-Equality and guarantees. Fairness is going to be ensured for EU organic farmers and the EU organic logo is going to offer consumers the same quality guarantees all over Europe. Given the premium price most consumers pay for organic food, this quality guarantee is extremely important.

-Elimination of exceptions. The new regulation will apply to the entire EU and the whole EU organic sector. It will eliminate the à la carte system of exceptions, even at the level of a single producer, which existed in each Member State, although there will be flexibility. Duly justified exceptions will be permitted, for example the temporary replacement of an organic ingredient by a non-organic one in cases of limited stocks, but they will now be limited in time. Those exceptions will be subject to period evaluations and will be applied, if necessary, to all producers and organic products to ensure fair treatment for all.

-Imports and the principle of conformity. The new rules will also apply to producers in non-EU countries that export their organic products to the EU. They will replace the more than 60 different sets of rules which are currently applied to organic imports. At the moment, different standards may apply to producers within the same country when the latter has no equivalence arrangement with the EU just because certification bodies set their own standards. Conformity to the EU single set of rules will replace the principle of equivalence, with a view to creating a level playing field for operators from the EU and from non-EU countries.

-More organic products. The scope of the rules has been extended to cover a range of new products such as salt, cork, beeswax, yerba mate, vine leaves and essential oils, and additional production rules (for example, deer, rabbits and poultry). It will also be possible to add new products to respond to the development of the sector and to consumers' demands, providing additional opportunities for organic producers.

-Small producers and new markets. The new regulation brings simplification for farmers. For example, small farmers now will be able to choose group certification, which will reduce their certification costs and make it easier for them to join the organic scheme. New opportunities are also going to be created by the opening of a new market for organic seeds and other plant reproductive material with a high level of genetic biodiversity. This will improve biodiversity, crop sustainability and will boost innovation. Resistance to pests and diseases will be improved and better adaptation to local conditions will be a focus.

-Balanced and more effective oversight. The new rules set a balance between the need to carry out controls to ensure consumer confidence in the sector and the burden that this places on farmers and competent authorities. Controls are carried out at Member State level, and are unannounced to guarantee their effectiveness. Although the standard procedure is to carry out annual controls, the new rules acknowledge that this is not necessarily always needed for established organic producers who have a clean record after three consecutive years of annual controls. In those cases, national authorities could decide to review them only once every other year. This will reduce red tape for farmers and for national administrations.

-Unauthorized and hazardous substances. Certified producers can in no way use any unauthorized substances such as pesticides on their crops. This has always been the case and does not change with the new rules. What the new rules set out are the precautionary measures that operators must take to reduce the risk of accidental "contamination" by pesticides used in conventional crops grown next to organic ones. In cases where there are claims that organic products contain pesticides, national authorities are obliged to investigate. Such claims must be clearly substantiated in order to trigger a formal investigation. The investigation should serve to determine the source and the cause of the presence of such substances, and include any appropriate method to eliminate the suspicion without any unnecessary delay. Countries that already have national rules in place, with thresholds for non-authorized substances, will be able to maintain them. The Commission will publish a report assessing the national rules within four years following the date of application of the new regulation and, if necessary, it will present a legislative proposal to align rules in this area.

-Reciprocal equivalence arrangements with non-EU countries. Agreements on organic products between the EU and non-EU countries will have to adapt to the new EU regulation whenever relevant within a reasonable timeframe. Those countries (Canada, Japan, the United States, Tunisia, New Zealand, etc.) have also recognized the EU as equivalent through equivalence arrangements or agreements (i.e. both parties have recognized each other's organic production rules and control systems as equivalent under their respective rules). These recognitions enable European consumers to choose from a wide range of organic products whilst providing export opportunities for EU producers. Existing recognition of equivalency of non-EU countries that are currently outside the scope of reciprocal equivalence arrangements will have to be transformed into reciprocal trade agreements to give more guarantees and a more solid legal framework for operators within a period of five years.

-Organic production in greenhouses. Nourishing plants primarily through the soil ecosystem is one of the principal requirements of organic production. The new regulation confirms the link with the soil as a basic principle, and as such the use of "demarcated beds" is not considered compatible with broader organic principles. However, it will be permitted by producers in Member States where the practice has already been authorized for organic agriculture to continue to use greenhouses for a limited period of ten years. The EC will present a report on the use of demarcated beds in greenhouses five years after the date of application of the new regulation that may be accompanied, if appropriate, by a legislative proposal.

Reactions

Phil Hogan, the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, said "Today's decision of the Council is another milestone for the organic sector, which ensures that this important and rapidly growing sector can continue to expand with clear rules and can be assured of being on an equal footing with producers from non-EU countries who export their organic produce into the EU. We must support this growth by ensuring that the sector operates with appropriate legislation."

For Hogan, "Throughout these negotiations, which lasted over three years, the Commission always had in mind the European consumer who buys organic produce and has reasonably certain expectations about the guarantees that the EU organic logo brings. Tighter precautionary measures will reduce the risk of accidental contamination by unauthorized substances."

José Bové, an MEP in the European Green Party, views the new regulation as positive, since it will allow the sector to take a major step forward on the right path, highlighting two aspects: reinforcement of oversight of imported organic products and organic seeds, which will be able to be developed and sold.

For Intereco, which groups together all of the public oversight agencies involved in organic production, major progress has been made in terms of the new regulation on organic agriculture, ending uncertainty created by years of debate over the regulation, as more than three years of negotiations have finally concluded. From the beginning, a clear and coherent interpretation at EU level has been considered essential, in particular with respect to the thresholds for non-authorized phytosanitary substances in organic foods. Some aspects are still open to interpretation; however, progress has been made in introducing target criteria to guarantee equal application in all areas.

For Ecovalia, the national association which promotes organic production and responsible consumption, although the inter-institutional agreement is viewed favorably, "From a legal standpoint, there's still a long road ahead to fix certain inconsistencies;" however, it trusts that the basic text that will be part of the regulation will be ready in the first quarter of 2018, while another important aspect will be implementation and delegated acts (European Commission).

The Spanish Society for Organic Farming (SEAE), through the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), which it is a part of, recognizes that improvements have been made compared with the initial proposal in 2014. However, although "many of the IFOAM-EU recommendations have been included in the final text, it's still a long way away from being an ideal text." To that end, they're calling for "a firm commitment to EU and Member State institutions to address the main shortfalls that still exist".

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