The toughening of regulation on organic farming has stirred debate. On 24 March, the European Commission presented a proposal for regulation aimed at improving the sometimes diverse rules of organic farming.
“Organic products do not constitute a niche market. They now represent a turnover of almost €20 billion per year” stated Dacian Ciolos, European commissioner for agriculture and rural development.
The turnover of organic products has increased by 8% per year since 2008. According to the Commission, 500,000 hectares of land is dedicated to organic farming in the EU every year. Despite this, the demand for organic produce is higher than the supply.
The Commission’s proposal wants to end organic farming and non-organic farming on the same land. The control and testing of organic porduce will be improved by applying obligatory tests on traders, and also the adoption of sanctions when a non-authorised substance is detected in organic products.
The proposal plans to adopt a group certification system in order to help small farmers enter the supply chain. Exports of organic products from EU member states will also be increased.
“Organic products that come from countries outside the EU are subject to strict specifications put in place by the Commission, which guarantee the same product quality” claims Valérie To of the French “Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité”, or INAO (national institute for origin and quality).
Excessive regulation fears
Germany, Europe’s largest organic food market, is wary of the proposal. “I would not like to see crushing bureaucratic restrictions imposed on organic farmers”, stated German Minister for Agriculture Christian Schmidt, asking decision makers to “use common sense”.
French agricultural cooperatives share these fears. “Despite a bit of progress, […] many provisions will jeopardise the development of organic agriculture” claims Coop de France.
Farming co-ops denounced the end of export diversity, which “will reduce converstions to organic farming and slow down the boom of agro-ecology”. They also criticise annual testing and the end of exemptions.
José Bové, the French Green MEP, highlights the need to harmonise support to organic farmers in the EU. He fears the cost of new restrictions, making specific reference to tests for the presence of pesticides. Bové highlights the difficulty of producing organic products without the presence of pesticides, especially when neighbouring plots are using them.
“We must take into account how difficult it is to produce organic food, when conventional farmers nearby do not take measures to prevent polluting your plot. The costs of extra testing cannot be borne by organic farmers alone. It makes more sense to apply a “whoever pollutes pays” principal when traces of pesticides are found” explains José Bové.
He continues: “The economic responsibility of unintentional pollution caused by exterior sources can lead to removing products or economic losses to organic farmers. They must be protected and compensated by those at the origin of the damages.”
A more credible label
According to Valérie To, this new regulation answers the demands of consumers: “The tougher conditions of production and testing ensure a credible label. The Commission sees a need to reinforce the label’s credibility in order to maintain its sustainability, and this is exactly what is needed.”
France’s Agence Bio published a report in which it claims that the consumption of organic products represented €22.2 billion in the EU in 2012. This number has been growing for decades. According to statistics by the European Commission, there are more than 180,000 organic farms in Europe, accounting for 9.6 million hectares, or 5.4% of the EU’s agricultural land.
“The new regulation is to deal with the rising demand for organic products. In order to guarantee a label of quality for the increasing number of consumers, the Commission had to reinforce certain rules”, states Valérie To.
The Commission will grant farmers a conversion period to apply the new regulation. This time period should give enough time to stop producing both organic and nonorganic food on the same land.
“There will be a conversion period of two or three years during which diversity will be possible. Therefore the application of the new regulation will not be brutal, but progressive. It is in the best interest of consumers and producers”, assures Valérie To.