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"The organic production sector needed a more solid structure"

Manel González. Journalist

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing, Food and the Environment has created the 2018-2020 Organic Production Strategy to strengthen this strategic industry and its adaptation to the market situation and trends, in line with the new European regulatory framework approved last year. We spoke about it with the Deputy Director of Differentiated Quality and Organic Farming from the Ministry, Francisco Javier Maté.

Question.- Was it easy to design the Organic Production Strategy? Did the fact that it was a highly-anticipated text by the industry help at all?

Answer.- The data and analysis revealed in the studies to characterize Spain's organic production and the profile of organic consumers in Spain in the last three years concluded that there was tension in the organic agri-food chain between supply and demand, driven mainly by the sharp increase in the latter, up by two-digit percentage points. This was the main driver behind the new 2018-2020 Strategy. In designing it, various stages had to be addressed, which required contacting all of the players in the value chain.

Without getting into too much detail, and once the assessment had been completed, the most important phases were determining requirements and evaluating which could be addressed from the area of competence, not just by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Food and the Environment, but also by the Central Administration, especially when most of the competencies that affect the sector have been transferred to the Regional Governments.

There were also significant consultations with practically all of the Ministry's units and centers with a view to understanding the great variety of products and tools distributed throughout its extensive organization, which could directly or indirectly lead to a positive action for organic production. That consultation was conducted with other private and public external entities, whose activity could be a part of the final objective of supporting organic production. Using all of this information, a draft was prepared and presented to the Sector Forum on Organic Production, to the organic sector (primary production and industry) as well as to associations related to distribution, consumers, businesses, professional agricultural organizations and other interested parties, within the framework of a Day of Reflection and Debate in June of 2017, during which four roundtables were organized to study the new contributions and modifications to the text which, following another analysis and evaluation, gave rise to the strategy.

Therefore, the answer to the question is that it hasn't been an easy process, given the multidisciplinary environment surrounding organic production, but understanding the sector's interest in the strategy has been a stimulus for addressing the entire process through dialogue and participation.

Q.- One of the objectives is to "contribute to better sector coordination of organic production." Could you give us an overview of the current situation?

A.- As I said, organic production is a multidisciplinary sector that includes a good number of sub-sectors that exist as part of conventional agri-food production. The great diversity of agricultural and cattle production, the broad catalog of foods and beverages they produce, which in itself is valuable is, at the same time, a great challenge which complicates its structure and is one of the reasons (though not the only one) that there is no strong sector association that can be recognized as the most important liaison between the industry and the administration. And that's a problem for both parties.

There are specific associations that currently, or at some point, play or played a very important role in the organic sector, such as SEAE, Itereco, Fepeco and Ecovalia, and the recently-created SOW (Spanish Organic Wines); however, the sector needs a more solid structure that facilitates and boosts dialogue with the Ministry. To that end, one of the objectives the Strategy aims to address is organic production in 2018-2020.

Q.- Perhaps the biggest "challenge" for consumers when buying organic products is the price. How does the Strategy address this issue?

A.- As with any consumer sector, price is a very important purchasing decision, but we don't believe, in the case of organic products, that it's necessarily the largest challenge to rising consumption. That could be attributable to other existing bottlenecks in the industry and, therefore, their positive performance; however, they would end up exercising a positive modulation on the price factor.

To give you an example, the different access model for organic foods vis-à-vis the food distribution system and the sales structures, compared with conventional foods, makes it difficult for the organic product to be at the disposal of the consumer on all supermarket shelves, which is an obstacle in terms of increasing consumption, and hinders the creation of economies of scale that reduce production unit costs. Therefore, increased efficiency in those access points will have an impact on prices as the presence of organic products becomes more patent in all sales channels, as has occurred in other countries. That doesn't mean that there's never going to be a balance of prices with conventional foods, because the organic food production model is very demanding, in accordance with agriculture's natural cycles, and that has a cost differential that the consumer must bear if he or she decides to buy.

I would highlight the Kantar 2017 Report on Consumption in Spain, which says that it was an excellent year for organic production, with consumption of packaged bio/organic products up 14% and products being consumed in 4 out of every 10 households.

Q.- The relationship between organic production and respect for the environment is logical, but can they be more closely correlated? And if so, how?

A.-The relationship between organic production and respect for the environment is logical and the two are intrinsically connected. But we believe it's necessary to have a more concrete understanding of this connection. To that end, the 2018-2020 Organic Production Strategy includes a new feature: a specific objective focused on the detailed study of the role of organic production in environmental policies. It's about characterizing the possible positive convergence or synergies of the former on the latter so as to contribute to their stimulation. This objective aims to provide a meeting point between various players, both public and private, to understand this relationship and share those actions that favor the positive contribution from organic production. To this end, 15 specific actions have been proposed, from raising awareness about tools that measure the sustainability of organic companies, promoting research on the influence of certain organic sub-sectors on the environment, sharing information about aid that could be of interest for the organic sector with a focus on environmental issues and climate change, or conducting studies on the superposition of organic production areas within the Natura 2000 network.

Q.- Ecovalia says that this plan has been approved with no defined budget and asks that it not be considered with just funds from the Ministry. Will the Strategy also be financed with funds from the central government's budget?

A.-The reality of it's not a plan that has been approved, in which case there would be a well-defined budget but, rather, a strategy, which is a much more flexible and adaptable tool for a sector that, in addition to being very dynamic, faces an upcoming change in its EU regulation that could lead to new challenges and opportunities as well as new responses.

On the other hand, all of the actions defined in the strategy assigned to the various units of the Public Administration, and always respecting the distribution of responsibilities with the regional governments, it will be rolled out with the Department's own resources or with actions financed with the budget assigned under the central government's budget, which must be approved by Parliament.

Q.- How did our quality distinctions perform in 2017?

A.- In 2017, Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs), Protected Geographic Indications (PGIs) and Traditional Specialties Guaranteed (TSG) continued to perform well, and it's very likely that we will exceed the estimated economic value in origin of 6.626 billion euros in 2016. In 2017, the European Union registered a new fresh meat PGI, Capón de Vilalba; it modified the name of another, Carne de Salamanca; a new honey was registered, PDO Villercas-Ibores, as was a new wine PGI, Ribeiras de Morrazo.

We currently have 347 food and drinks with Spanish PDO/PGI/TGS certifications registered in the EU and 18 applications being processed. We rank third, after Italy with 930, and France with 745. This reflects the wealth of Spain's biodiversity expressed through food and drink with a geographical indication. In this important sector, we are working to draft a 2018-2020 National Quality Distinction Strategy, with the participation of all players in the food chain. We expect it to be ready in the second half of the year, and the goal is to optimize its potential due to its added value, the fact that it keeps people from emigrating to cities, the opportunity it offers for tourism and gastronomy, and how it represents Marca España.

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