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Paris: European conference demands changes to the planned Organic Regulation

by Redaktion (comments: 0)


The 125 people from 14 European countries who participated in the conference were in agreement after one-and-a-half days of intensive discussion: the best strategy was either to withdraw the version of the EU Organic Regulation planned by the EU in its entirety or to amend certain important points. A recommended approach was to continue on the basis of the existing Regulation from 2007, taking into account any material added over the intervening years. All critical points for organic producers were discussed in six parallel working groups. Attendees included the representatives of associations in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, England, Switzerland, Finland, Spain and other EU member states. The organizers were the IFOAM EU-Group and the French manufacturers association Synabio.

(Picture: Christopher Stopes, President of the IFOAM EU-Group, opened the conference) 

In his concluding statement, the director of the Dutch umbrella association Bionext, Bavo van den Idsert (picture on left), summarized the proceedings: “We don’t need more regulations but the improved implementation of the already existing Regulation.” And, turning to the representative of the organic unit in the Directorate General of Agriculture, Manuel Rossi-Prieto, he said: “We’re pleased that the EU Commission is willing to work with us in addressing the problems and issues that have arisen – let us start a new dialogue.”

Lawyer Hans-Peter Schmidt, who sees an avalanche of problems rolling towards the organic industry in Europe, proposed to Rossi-Prieto that, instead of replacing the current regulation completely, changes should be added precisely to the current legislation – in other words, amend instead of remove. Otherwise he fears that thousands of other regulations, created on the basis of the Organic Regulation and having legal power, will have to be brought into line to prevent the possibility of legal uncertainty.

At the Organic Conference in Paris (17/18.11.2014), Rossi-Prieto (picture on right) was prepared to debate the issues and, at various presentations and discussions, he elucidated the very convincing intention and objectives of simplification and improvement of the Organic Regulation. In so doing, he spoke about one of the main motives for revising the EU Organic Regulation: “It’s very important to take action against bio-fraud, because it makes people question the credibility of the organic industry. Next year there will be a programme to tackle fraud called ‘Traces’ that will make it possible to check organic certificates online.”

The most hotly debated issue during the whole conference was the question of decertification threshold for residues of non-authorized substances in organic products. While the Commission and a small number of participants would like to meet consumer expectations of completely clean and uncontaminated food, the vast majority of participants considered this to be wishful thinking. “Organic doesn’t exist on an island but in the middle of a sea of conventional agriculture and an environment contaminated by pesticides and their residues,” was the gist of several contributions. It cannot be right that a farmer is afraid of unjustified persecution, and the burden of proof is such that he has to prove that he is not guilty of drift or pesticide contamination that has occurred somewhere else. Instead, the ‘polluter pays’ principle has to apply, so that the farmer who has used a pesticide is liable for the damage he has caused. (Picture: Kirsten Arp of the German association of organic processors, wholesalers and retailers - BNN - introduced the monitoring of the association) 
 
The French organic farmer Dominique Marion had an example to hand: his producer association had to pay 5,000 euros for laboratory testing because glyphosate contamination was suspected. Also Hans Braekman, Development and Support Manager at the analysis facility Fytolab in Belgium, explained that there are frequently contradictory results from different laboratories and that in Europe only about a third to a half of the 150 authorized labs deliver acceptable or good results. This made it clear that the good reputation of the organic industry in terms of zero tolerance could lie in the hands of a few laboratories. With their results, they can decide on the fate of whole batches and harvests. “False positive” was one of the key terms that preoccupied the attendees at the conference. It happens again and again: a laboratory claims to have found residues in organic produce but, when investigated again by another laboratory, the results cannot be confirmed. However, the issue has frequently already been made public, with unjustified accusations, and expensive re-call operations have been undertaken. (Picture: Hans Braekman, Fytolab)

A further aspect of the discussion of residues is persistent poisons like DDT, that have been in the soil for decades and degrade only very slowly. Everyone was in agreement that individual organic farmers should not be punished if they discover unexpected old contamination of this kind. If the level of contamination is below the legal thresholds, it has to be tolerated. If the current draft of the Organic Regulation was accepted without amendment, it would mean that in all cases of residues the whole batch of raw materials or, even worse, of processed products would have their organic status rescinded. The consequence would be products having to be cleared from the shelves and destroyed. R A Schmidt feared that “in future, this could be the order of the day”. (Graph: 0.5% - 1% of the products tested by BNN showed residues above the threshold allowed by the law; about 5% - 10% of products contained residues between the detection limit and the threshold allowed by law. When the BNN-warning level is exceeded, investigations take place and consequences are initiated, if necessary)   

Moreover, this would hand to all opponents of organic agriculture a powerful argument – whether the residue analyses of products in the shops are right or wrong – to set in motion recall actions at the expense of the retail trade. A compensation regulation planned by the EU, that can (not must) be introduced by national governments, benefits only the producer in the EU, however, and not the trader, who is left with the damage. Importers and farmers outside the EU would also have to bear the burden themselves. Given such risks, many attendees thought it could result in closure of businesses on a large-scale. Added to the increased risk, there was still the possible withdrawal of licences if pesticide residues were found, said Christopher Stopes, President of the IFOAM EU-Group. “This is why it’s very important to work out our own position on issues for the organic sector. Organic farming is a continuum from soil fertility and seed to processing and not just a question of the uncontaminated end product.” (Picture: Sophie Taufour introduces SecurBio) 

Another controversial issue was what yardstick to apply in the future to imports into the EU. So far the principle of equivalence of organic Regulation has applied. In future it is to be the conformity of rules and regulations. The IFOAM EU-Group, that has published its position on its website, does not think conformity is the right approach. “We don’t insist on fully homogeneous guidelines and don’t want a neo-colonialist approach,” says Stopes. He pointed out that there are myriad systems all over the world that should eliminate their differences little by little. (Picture on left: A lot of participants signaled their interest and took part in the discussion) 

Jean Verdier, president of the manufacturers association Synabio, said there is a need for some harmonization in Europe too: “It’s a question of bringing together the various approaches to create a common standpoint. In France, we’re already working with different organizations like Coop de France. We’re not against a reformulation in principle, but it must be coherent.” There was consensus at the Paris conference that annual inspections should be continued in the future. The EU had proposed that, in order to reduce bureaucracy, in non-risk sectors inspections every two years would suffice.

Verdier added: “What’s also important for us is growing plants in soil not in substrate, which the Commission proposal for a new Organic Regulation doesn't clearly forbid. Dynamic growth can be maintained only if we have the right legal basis,” is how he expressed the wish of all those present at the conference.
 

Gerald Herrmann, from the consultancy Organic Services, pointed to the necessity of preventive measures to combat fraud by means of online databases. The Munich company has developed the programme CheckOrganic that could help in this endeavour. Having a database available would help because you could access the current status of a control certificate. “On this point, the guidelines in the EU Organic Regulation are nowhere near adequate to combat future organic fraud more effectively,” said Herrmann. (Picture on right: The conference took place in the community centre MAS in Paris)  
 
Bavo van den Idsert, from the Dutch umbrella association Bionext, was in favour of developing further the risk-based approach (controls especially in hot spots), in order to prevent fraud. “Not only processors but also control organizations and the authorities need more ways of cross-checking,“ said van den Idsert. “Ultimately, we need better implementation of the existing guidelines and not a complete re-write of the Organic Regulation.”

There is further dissent between the organic industry and the EU Commission on the question of whether in future farms with a combination of both conventional and organic land should be permitted or not. There is a potential risk on these farms of mixing different fertilisers, etc. Luc Maurer, from the French Ministry of Agriculture, maintained there is no problem in controlling two different kinds of farming, because different crops are being grown. Although abolishing conventional cropping is a noble objective, it is not achievable, at least in the short term. Maurer also criticised the 30 planned delegated acts that will give rise to a “flood of changes”, and it is still not possible to see what the content of those changes will be. Furthermore, Maurer was in favour of retaining the rules governing exceptions in cropping to facilitate a certain amount of flexibility. (Picture on left: Jean Verdier/Synabio, Christopher Stopes/IFOAM EU, Luc Maurer/French agricultural ministry, Charles Perin/Synabio)
 
There were lively debates on further important points in both the working groups and the plenary session. The issues addressed were the requirements of packaging materials, management of the environment and sustainability, questions of quality and mandatory controls of all retail outlets in the EU that sell organic products. Packaged goods, where there is as good as no problem of mixing material together, could until now basically be sold anywhere. Here too, the attendees were in agreement that the existing regulations should stay in place and that mandatory controls for pre-packaged organic products should not be introduced. If controls are introduced, it is feared that shops selling drinks and kiosks offering a few organic items would sooner de-list them than undergo an expensive organic control.(Picture: in the centre - Marco Schlüter, Director of IFOAM EU-Group, Maria Pelletier/Moulin Marion,Manuel Rossi-Prieto/EU-Commission, DG Agri) 


Comment:

At long last! In Paris we experienced an outstanding exchange of opinions by a number of actors in the organic sector – ranging from unfortunately only one member of the EU Commission, organic farmers, processors, retailers and organic organizations to the IFOAM EU Group. Speakers from several European countries took to the podium. What is crucial is that the organic sector in Europe speaks with one voice and that the demands put to the Commission don’t give the impression of dissonance and a disunited industry. The Paris Processing conference was a European exchange of opinions and ideas par excellence, with very good contributions and characterized by a culture of listening and borne by the idea of developing a common platform. The IFOAM EU Group, together with a national partner, organized the conference. We should hail them and all the others taking part:  More of the same, that’s the right way forward! (Picture: Relaxing lunch break with a nice buffet and personal discussions)
 
Tip:
Position of the IFOAM EU Group on the planned EU Organic Regulation
Some of the presentations of the conference are available online
IFOAM EU news: http://www.ifoam-eu.org/
 


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