EU Commissioner champions organic farming
Monday 15 April 2013
On Thursday, European Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos spoke before the advisory group, contributing to a reform of EU policy on organic agriculture.
Commissioner Ciolos said to the consultation group that the EU organic sector stands "at a cross roads." He told those assembled, "[Organic] is increasingly recognized by the public as a benchmark for sustainable production" and claimed that the more ecological nature of organic farming has been acknowledged in Common Agriculture Policy reforms, which are also progressing through the EU's legislative bodies.
The Commissioner added that "Demand for healthy foods, locally and sustainably produced with a strong identity is constantly increasing." He said, "Organic is well positioned to respond to this dynamic," though he explained that the principal future challenge facing the organic sector will be to reconcile meeting increased demand with maintaining the organic principles and "ensuring organic farming does not fall victim to its own success."
Although in the UK the organic sector has contracted year on year since 2008, in mainland Europe and elsewhere around the world the approach is experiencing steady growth. In February, after news broke of widespread contamination of processed beef with DNA from other animals, organic sales rose sharply in the UK, leading some to suggest food scandals could herald a return to growth for the sector in this country.
In Brussels, the advisory group is consulting with stakeholder organisations to inform its organic policy reforms. A 12 week consultation on the reform, instigated in light of the organic sector's growing profile over recent years, attracted 45,000 responses.
With 10 million hectares under certified organic production, the EU has the second highest amount of land registered as organic worldwide, behind Australasia which has 12.1m ha. Over the past decade, the organic area in Europe has more than doubled, whilst the market has more than quadrupled worldwide, reaching 44.6 billion Euros.
Commissioner pledges to preserve high standards
Commissioner Ciolos said, "We need to encourage production without yielding to the temptation of a race to the bottom, without reducing the level of ambition, without compromising on the values of the sector."
Speaking in Brussels on Thursday, he talked about traceability and the need to crack down on frauds. These assertions will chime well with many in the European organic sector, in light of the recent horsemeat scandal, a series of food scandals in the German farm industry (the most recent of which has seen over 100 farms implicated in selling battery eggs as free-range or organic) and allegations of widespread fraud in Italy. Earlier this month, Italian farming union Coldiretti claimed that Italians have fallen victim to fraudsters capitalising on the sector's remarkable growth in the country and passing off conventional produce as organic.
According to the results of a study by Coldiretti, as many as 46 percent of organic consumers could have bought goods fraudulently marketed as organic in Italy and up to 12 percent of food labelled as organic in the country could be conventional produce masquerading as such. Commissioner Ciolos said this fraud is "totally unacceptable," especially given the premium prices often commanded by organic produce.
Ciolos said he would look more closely at traceability, transparency and means of cracking down on "unscrupulous operators who act illegally… to protect the industry and its brand." On a related note, he added, "We have dramatically increased requests for equivalence and certification bodies," to secure high standards and ensure bodies operating across the EU's national boundaries function in good accord with one another.
The Commissioner said that, with an increasing market for organic processed foods, which has expanded rapidly since the last set of rules were drawn up in 2007, it will be important to ensure organic farming does not lose its sustainable edge and begin to conform to the 'norms' of modern industrial food.
He pledged to attempt to avoid the "industrialisation" of the organic brand and warned against the potential expansion of manufacturing and distribution chains, a development which he said would go against his desires and those of European citizens responding to the EU consultation.
However, although Ciolos committed himself to preserving the organic sector's integrity in this year's review, in March the Soil Association was highly critical of the EU consultation. The Association, one of around nine organic certification bodies operating in Britain, said that it, as well as others in the organic movement, "Feel that the [commission's] questions are not worded well, and miss some big issues."
The Association elaborated in a statement that, "Our message to the European authorities is that we want an Organic Regulation that provides confidence in organic food and farming, but that doesn't overburden businesses and control bodies with unnecessary bureaucracy."
Although Commissioner Ciolos touched lightly on the controversial issue of genetic modification last week, his statements were fairly non-committal. In contrast, the Soil Association was unequivocal last month; "Our view is that provisions banning GMOs should be strong and based on the principle that the polluter pays: the cost of testing or labelling to enable shoppers to find food produced without GMOs should fall on non-organic businesses that sell and use them, not on organic farmers and processors."
Nevertheless, the commissioner sought to appease organic groups last week. He pledged to ensure the regulatory burden is not prohibitively costly or restrictive, which he said would risk jeopardising the smaller organisations supported by many respondents. He also said continued dialogue with Europe's organic groups would be necessary over the coming months and praised the organic sector as one which has established "solid foundations" over the past thirty years.