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Grand coalition against total revision

by Redaktion (comments: 0)

Two important events in Brussels made it clear once again that the organic industry is not alone in opposing with all its might the current draft of a new EU Organic Regulation. The Ministers of Agriculture Bonde and Brunner, representing the Federal States of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, joined in the severe criticism of the draft during an evening event held prior to a hearing in the EU Parliament on 3.12.2014. Organic Market.Info editor Kai Kreuzer reports for you from Brussels. Since we have already reported several times on this subject, we refer here to only the most important arguments.

(Picture: View of the Committee Room in the EU Parliament.) 

The EU Commission is in a fix – something that became abundantly clear during the two events that featured some high-ranking and prestigious attendees. In his contribution from the floor, Bioland President Jan Plagge gave vent to the frustration of the industry: “We’ve been trying for two years to talk to representatives of the Commission about proposals for improvement – but all in vain. Instead, we’ve been told time and again that the new Organic Regulation will make things much better in the future.”  The focus of the organic industry in Europe – represented by the IFOAM EU Group – is not on pure doctrine but on pragmatism. Instead of a completely reformulated version of the regulation, it makes more sense to keep the existing legal foundation, even though, as critics have pointed out, it is fragmented and too complex. (Picture: Jan Plagge, President of the Bioland Association)

Advocates of the current regulation concede that there should be modification and further development, but for them the problems are much more those of implementation, examples being the monitoring of large-scale animal keeping or controlling imports, and much less the shortcomings of the legislation itself. The consequence of a completely new regulation would be legal uncertainty, and the result of that would be hardly anyone would contemplate converting to organic or investing in the organic sector.

Thorough discussion of all the issues within the organic movement and severe criticism of the EU Commission, not least from the governments of member states, that it was endangering a flourishing industry led after a year to an initial attempt at mediation. The EU Parliament nominated an MP from its own ranks – the Green Party member Martin Häusling – to be the rapporteur in the Agricultural Committee, and he organized a two-and-a-half hour hearing on 3.12.2014. In the first half of this event – in a room well filled with around 250 attendees – various experts like Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein (BÖLW), Jürn Sanders (Thünen Institute) and Etienne Gagnerons (Agence Bio) expressed their views. All the speakers were asked to respond to seven questions. They were followed by two practitioners – an organic farmer from Austria and one from Spain. Isabelle Übertsberger from “Bio Austria Next Generation” presented her grassland farm in the Alps and expressed a clear point of view concerning the planned Organic Regulation: “I don’t think it’s fair if a farmer is held liable for residues for which he was not responsible.” (Picture: Etienne Gagnerons/Agence Bio and Isabelle Übertsberger/Bio Austria)

Once again, Löwenstein went into all the arguments against a new regulation. The Organic Regulation was indeed in need of further development, and this should be carried out on the basis of the existing legislation. Taking the example of wine growing, Löwenstein explained why the target of zero tolerance of pesticide residues made no sense at all. Precisely in small-scale wine growing, where you find organic plots of just a few hundred square metres, there were always cases of drifting. Compensation by the state would be no use if you had to say to the customer wanting to buy wine that there wasn’t any this year and that he should come back next year. Neither did it make sense to force organic farmers indirectly to take his conventional colleagues to court to seek compensation from them. Löwenstein pointed out that you would be “prosecuting your neighbours instead of having a beer with them in the evening or playing football”. The author of the book “Food Crash”, who lived for some time in Haiti, argued that the regulations for organic agriculture relating to third country imports don’t have to be identical with those of the EU. Equivalence is perfectly adequate, and 100 % conformity is scarcely achievable. (Picture: Jürn Sanders/Thünen Institute and Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein, BÖLW)

Policy adviser Jürn Sanders, who evaluated the current legislation governing organic agriculture, finds there is no “strategic framework to advance organic farming.” He criticized further issues: zero pesticide residues, delegated acts and the abolition of exceptions. He conceded that a certain amount of pressure, for example in the case of increasing the introduction of organic seed, is a sensible measure. “It’s a question of fine tuning. But to prevent damaging the industry, you mustn’t exert too much pressure. Your aim shouldn’t be to reach the 100 % mark too quickly,” Sanders said. Unlike the Commission, Sanders does not consider there is a threat to consumer confidence – despite a number of scandals – otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing constant growth of the market. In conclusion, Sanders expressed his opinion diplomatically: “Doing nothing is not an option. The draft is a first step, but now there’s a significant amount of work to be done to improve it.” (Picture: Organic farmer E. Rodrigez Alvarez from Spain, Gagnerons and Übertsberger)

Etienne Gagnerons (the chair of Agence Bio) emphasised that retaining the possibility of partial conversion to organic was very important for France. If this was not the case, production would rapidly collapse. As the farmer from Spain stressed, around 40 % of Spanish organic farms are partial conversions. Gagnerons also went into problem areas: making exceptions regarding seed still needed to be possible; since there were big differences in practice, there had to be a common European line on rescinding organic certification in the case of proven pesticide residues. He also pointed out that there was still a long way to go to harmonise the methods of the control agencies and the laboratories carrying out analyses. In retail, however, statutory control for shops selling only packaged and labelled goods would be superfluous. The MEP José Bové from France wondered why the EU Organic Regulation had to be changed at one fell swoop simply because there had been a number of fraud cases involving the relabelling of goods. (Picture: Green MEP José Bové/Confédération paysanne)

As well as listening to the speakers on the podium, we were able to follow what they were saying on three big screens in the committee room. Quite a lot of EU parliamentarians also took part in the proceedings with questions to the experts. An MEP from the Netherlands said that, although she supported the Commission’s draft, she had seven points of criticism, an example being the fact that the annual inspection of farms should not be replaced by risk controls. In his closing statement Martin Häusling, as the organizer of the hearing, said he wanted to see them move rapidly to a solution that would help to advance the organic sector and not hinder it. (Picture: Martin Häusling, Green Party MEP from Hessen)

On the evening before the hearing in the EU Parliament, a panel discussion was held at the Bavarian representation in Brussels. Taking part were the ministers of agriculture of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, Diego Canga-Fano representing the EU Commission, Martin Häusling and Christopher Stopes,  the chair of the IFOAM EU Group. During the lively debate, members of the panel and the audience spoke emphatically against the EU draft, so that the representative of the Commission was left isolated.

Director-General Clemens Neumann, from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture in Berlin, compared the process of creating the new regulation with the automotive sector. Everybody is glad when cars become more and more environmentally friendly. “But if you were to suddenly introduce an EU Norm 10 instead of an EU Norm 6 people would protest.” And since people in Germany are in agreement that organic agriculture should continue to be expanded, they have to appeal to the EU Commission with the plea: “This is the wrong way.” (Picture: Discussion panel in the Bavarian Representation)

The Bavarian Minister of Agriculture, Brunner, is also extremely critical of the new Organic Regulation, among other things because he sees the livelihood of 800 small livestock farmers in the Alps under threat. Extensive cattle keeping had to be retained as an option in the future. The stated aim of the Bavarian government was a doubling of organic farms from 6,500 to 13,000 by 2020. In his words, it was not possible to modify the Commission’s draft but only to annul it. And he added: “The consensus we find among so many federal states and regions that they don’t want this regulation is unlikely to be replicated in respect of any other issue.”

The green Minister of Agriculture in Baden-Württemberg, Alexander Bonde, fears that the new regulation could be an obstacle to development and that this will deter further investment in organic farming. Christopher Stopes from the IFOAM EU Group emphasised that no impact analysis had been carried out to assess the possible consequences.

(Pictures: Alexander Bonde, Christopher Stopes, Helmut Brunner)

In the meantime, the EU Commission has begun to feel the pressure. Diego Canga-Fano, a Commission staff member and responsible for the Organic Regulation at the DG Agri for only three months, indicated his willingness to discuss the issues. “We would like to take advantage of the German experience and turn the criticism coming from Germany into constructive proposals. However, we don’t intend to withdraw the draft regulation, because that would immediately put an end to discussion. Instead, we want to address the individual points which will allow us to talk about all the issues.” Brunner, who described the efforts being made in Bavaria to develop organic farming, asked whether it was a sensible move to “pursue a proposal that everybody rejects.” Mr Canga-Fano pointed out that they wanted to retain certain points like group certification. It was also a good idea to condense the current 63 guidelines applicable to organic farming. “The sooner we find a solution the better. We’re receptive to good proposals that will enable us all to achieve our aims.”

(Pictures: Häusling, Löwenstein, Canga-Fano with Christopher Stopes and Marco Schlüter/IFOAM EU)





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