Recent proposals to reform the EU regulation of organic food production and its labelling illustrate the difficulty of satisfying the competing interests of consumers, producers and policymakers. Harry Greenfield, of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology, navigates his way through the proposed reforms and the debate ensuing on all sides.

There has always been a tension within organic agriculture between the good it claims to do for our environment – such as keeping water clean and soil healthy – and the fact that it relies on consumers to pay a premium for organic food which is more than most people can afford.

The role of farming in caring for our environment should be a matter for farmers, researchers and policymakers to determine, amid much public debate and changing of minds. Such a debate would produce internationally agreed-upon organic principles that could act as a guide to what progressive farming should look like. The details of how to get there would evolve over time, as the wide variations in climate, topography, soil type and other factors would justify a range of techniques and methods.

However, creating a strong market for organic produce means winning and maintaining the trust of consumers. This is why organic production is based around a system of certification and compliance with detailed standards, which are necessarily prescriptive in terms of which techniques are acceptable and which are not. How far any specific set of standards goes in supporting the underlying principles of the organic movement is an open question. There is disagreement, for example, about the best farming practice to sustain and enhance soil health, which could lead to debates about whether relevant methods such as no-till farming should be incorporated into organic systems. In addition, if the organic movement aims to increase the amount of organic food produced and consumed, there is a temptation to make it easier for producers to meet the standards in order to achieve this, even if it means moving away from the principles.

The European Union (EU) hopes to harness the potential of organic agriculture to produce environmental benefits, supporting organic farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy. It is also concerned with consumer protection, and must ensure that organic goods meet consumer expectations. The result is that the EU now regulates organic standards to guide the principles and rules around organic food and labelling.

Organic farming is a growing market, with European organic companies merging and expanding to ensure they remain globally competitive in the face of competition from other countries – such as China where the market is growing – as well as from other food certification schemes such as the Rainforest Alliance mark. It is not surprising, now that organic standards are decided by governments, that there is strong opinion and intense lobbying whenever they are written or updated (as is happening now in the EU).

The European Commission has examined several scenarios to update the existing regulations, including improving current legislation and going in one of two directions: market driven or principle driven. The market-driven proposal aims to use regulation to encourage more producers to enter the sector by relaxing standards, while the principle-driven one involves tightening standards to re-focus on the founding principles of organic farming. This split between the interests of market expansion versus adherence to principles corresponds in part to the debate between what is best for producers and what is best for consumers.

Article 22 on ‘flexibility’ in the organic regulation gives an insight into the kinds of concerns motivating both sides of the debate. The article allows countries to grant exceptions and label products as organic even if one or more of the requirements has not been met. Although meant to be used sparingly and temporarily – when there are severe constraints such as bad weather or a lack of supply of organic input – critics felt it was being used too often and threatened to dilute the original standards. The Commission carried out a consultation and impact assessment that supported this criticism. It concluded that the existence of exceptions, and the fact that food labelled organic could contain up to 5% of non-organic ingredients, undermined consumer trust in the organic sector. These exemptions were also seen as impeding growth in the organic input market, including seeds and animal feed, by allowing the use of non-organic inputs when organic was unavailable. The Commission hopes that tightening the regulations will kick start the organic seed and input sector, which would now have a guaranteed demand.

Opposition to the proposals was immediate and widespread, including from agriculture ministers in France and Germany as well as representatives of European farmers, conventional and organic, who were concerned that stricter regulation could strangle organic expansion. Supply of organic produce in Europe is struggling to keep up with rising demand, despite 6% annual growth rates in production. The EU, critics said, should be doing everything possible to encourage more farmers to become organic, not making it harder for them, which will cause organic food to remain a niche product only available to the middle-class.

Another common complaint is that simply requiring producers to stick to a stricter set of rules will not be enough to make it happen. In the case of using organic inputs, some countries, such as those in Eastern Europe, have very low levels of supply, and even those with a more developed market will struggle to meet a 100% requirement. IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), an umbrella organisation for the organic movement, called for further support from the EU to help develop the organic input market, for example by subsidising organic seed producers. In addition, some of the current common exceptions, such as those involving livestock management and seed use, should be permanently embedded into the new standards.

The Commission also called for an end to parallel production of organic and non-organic food on the same farm and the simplification and tightening of regulations governing organic imports to the EU. The latter followed concerns that some products from non-EU countries that are labelled organic do not meet EU standards. Finally, the proposals suggested more rigorous and regular testing of organic food, for example for pesticide residue. Many of these proposals faced similar criticisms to the reduction in exceptions. Stricter import rules may prevent non-EU agroecological farmers accessing lucrative EU markets and stop farmers in developing countries from converting to organic. Increased testing, meanwhile, which was to be coupled with stronger sanctions for failing a test, was seen as unfair to those farmers whose produce was contaminated by their neighbours rather than by their breaking a rule. This goes against the established principle that the polluter should pay for damage caused, rather than penalising the organic farmer whose crops have been affected by his or her neighbour’s chemical use.

The reform proposals are now making their somewhat tortured progress through EU institutions. To approve the proposals requires agreement between the three legislative bodies: the elected European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, which includes government ministers from EU countries, and the European Commission, consisting of appointed Commissioners. Since presenting the proposals in 2014, the Commission has already made some changes to address its critics. The European Parliament presented a draft report in May this year with amendments that have also tended towards the relaxation of the original proposals.

The Council of Ministers, made up of agricultural ministers from across the EU, met in Riga at the beginning of June to discuss the future of the organic sector in the EU. As well as affording UK Farming Minister George Eustice the chance to demonstrate his antler-throwing abilities, this meeting was an attempt to reach a common position that all ministers could agree upon. A further meeting in Luxembourg produced enough agreement between farming ministers to continue onto the next step of agreement within the European Parliament.

This process is still on going, but the Commission expects an agreement to be reached this autumn, during so-called ‘trilogue’ discussions, which will seek consensus from the three EU legislative institutions.

The debate around the new EU regulation highlights the differing interests of those involved, from commercial organic farms to processors and retailers to consumers keen to know where their food comes from and how it is made. The progress of the discussions in Europe shows that many producers and governments feel that too much focus is being put on guaranteeing consumer confidence in the organic standards, while there is less understanding of how organic farming is done in practice. Their fear is that producers simply would not be able to meet the new higher standards. If maintaining consumer trust in organic produce places an increased burden on producers, then EU policymakers should step in. Recognising that organic farming could fulfil many of the goals they have in health, social and environmental policy, could justify support for organic producers – through, for example, higher subsidy payments, rather than just stronger regulation of the sector.

There is an important opportunity to unite all these groups in a common aim. If EU policymakers, a growing consumer market and organic producers can all agree on a common pathway, then the organic sector has the potential to really grow.

Photograph: James McNamara

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