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An unanimous “NO” to the full revision of the EU-Regulation on Organic Production

by Redaktion (comments: 0)

Nearly every one of the approximately one hundred participants in a gathering in Berlin was in agreement. “We reject the draft of a completely new version of the EU Organic Regulation and refuse to get involved in discussing specific items of the proposal with the Commission,” said Jan Plagge, president of the board of BÖLW, (Bund Ökologische Lebensmittelwirtschaft – the umbrella organization of the German organic sector domiciled in Berlin - at the conclusion of the one-day discussion held on 7.7.2014. Twelve experts presented their statements at the event titled: “Impact assessment of the EU Commission: a solid basis for a new Organic Regulation or a misguided undertaking?”

(Picture: Participants at the conference in the Permanent Representation of the federal state Sachsen-Anhalt in Berlin) 

In March, the EU Commission published a draft for a complete revision of the EU Organic Regulation. Common to all speakers at the conference is the belief that the EU proposal could have dramatic impacts on the whole organic sector – from farmers to consumers. In a fifteen-minute address, each of the experts elucidated from his point of view the predictable changes and the practical consequences for farming, processing, retailing and organic controls.

Jan Plagge (picture on left), who introduced the debate, pointed out that the EU Commission could without doubt have built on many successes, such as the promotion of research for the organic sector or the continuous amendmends carried out in recent years to the existing EU Organic Regulation. They could have remedied known weaknesses in the current regulation and at the same time boosted the development of the sector. He said that for two years the IFOAM EU-Group had been in discussion with the Commission in order to promote further development of the existing legislation. Despite this advocacy, the Commission had chosen the route of rewriting everything. The EU-Commission’s justification was principally the interest of consumers in pesticide-free food. However, despite being invited, no representative of Commission was in Berlin to defend this standpoint.
Leading the impressive phalanx of those who advocate continuing with the currently applicable Organic Regulation was Clemens Neumann (picture on right),  departmental head in the Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft (BMEL) (Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture). The ministry has considerable reservations regarding the EU-Commission’s revision proposal that would not support small-scale farming. This is why the ministry backs the position of BÖLW – Neumann said their positions were ‘similar’. “The Regulation must continue to reflect the processes inherent in organic production systems.” In his opinion, the deciding factor must not be simply that the end product doesn’t contain residues.
Stefan Dreesmann (Picture on left), who works in the Ministry of Agriculture in Lower Saxony, criticized the Commission for making false assumptions and coming to false conclusions. He said that there was no synopsis to accompany the draft of the new regulation that would have enabled the ministries to compare the text of the current and the planned Organic Regulation. “We don’t know precisely what has been left out,” Dreesmann explained. As examples of what is actually missing, he gave the clipping of beaks and docking of pigs’ tails. He said the Commission wanted to simplify, but is  in fact underestimating the complexity of the subject. He added that we are  ‘buying a pig in a poke’. Nobody knows what the Commission would later include in the implementing rules. “We’re not in a playground - we’re dealing here with a commercial sector that this year will achieve turnover of nearly 8 billion euros in Germany alone. His conclusion: it would be much better to retain the current Organic Regulation and improve it by addressing individual points.

Jürn Sanders (picture on right) from the Thünen Institute addressed the question whether consumer confidence that the EU Commission claims to be under threat is really in danger. According to Öko-Monitoring in Baden-Württemberg, organic food is very rarely containing any  pesticides. He maintained that it is unrealistic to try to achieve the Commission’s idea of "Organic: More and Better" by means of tightening the guidelines and removing all exemptions. There can be no such thing as an “organic cloud-cuckoo-land” The organic sector must also find its place on the  marketplace. “We would certainly have consistent, high profile organic production , but we’d have much less area under organic cultivation, Sanders said. He also foresees problems in third countries in particular that supply the EU. “Since the rules have to be applied in a compliant way, we’ll see far less organic products coming from third countries.” His conclusion: “The Commission intends to push through a paradigm shift, and in so doing it’s making many practical mistakes.”

When Jutta Jaksche (picture on left), the representative of the Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband  - the top level federal organization in Germany representing consumers’ interests - went to the microphone, the tension increased. It was already evident that the main argument of the Commission is consumer confidence, that it regards as currently being under threat. Jaksche welcomed the fact that the Commission is addressing the issue, because credibility and transparency are an important promise for consumers. Animal welfare and strengrthening the control system are in her view important points that should be added in the existing EU organic regulation as fast as possible. She pointed out that there was a complete absence of social aspects in the proposal of the EU Commission. For her, a minimum frequency of annual inspection plus risk-oriented additional inspectionsis essential, which is what the current EU organic regulation foresees. Jaksche takes the EU Commission to task: “Problems of implementation can’t be solved by a new regulation. Consumers are being misused by the EU Commission in order to justify their proposals. If the Commission were to take its own aims seriously, it would put forward another proposal,” is how Jaksche stated her case. She said she also wanted to see clear and ambitious amendmends of the existing regulation with regard to animal welfare and  food packaging materials. She came to the conclusion that the new draft of the EU Commission ought to be shredded. Instead of revising the current Organic Regulation in its entirety, it should be improved step by step.

The European Organic Regulation became law in 1991, and since that date has undergone numerous s adjustments and amendments including one complete revision: The Council of the EU adopted a new legislation for the sector only in 2007. The Council’s Regulation (EG) No. 834/2007 of 28 June 2007 has defined since then how products and foods that are labelled as organic have to be produced and processed. The regulation (EC) No. 834/2007 replaced in 2007 the first EU organic regulation No. 2092/91..

Martin Rombach (picture on left) from the Konferenz der Kontrollstellen e.V. (KDK) – representing  control bodies in Germany- criticized the fact that the Commission’s proposal is putting too much emphasis on the role of analytics. Analysis today, cannot establish whether a product is organic or not. It is certainly the case that there is significantly less residue in organic products, but even here it’s not possible to assume there is none at all. Moreover, no laboratory the world over can say from what method of agriculture a product comes that is free of any residues. It doesn’t automatically mean that it has been grown organically. In an agricultural production system typical for most European member states, there will always be a certain amount of drift as long as the most farms are still producing conventionally, apart from the contaminants that are ubiquitous in the environment. “We face the threat of de-certification of organic products on a massive scale and huge damage. In future, farmers could be compensated by the state but not retailers,” was what Rombach feared. On account of the new EU Regulation it’s hardly possible to assess future development. “Conversion becomes an incalculable risk.” He said organic would play a smaller, not a bigger, role. 
Jochen Neuendorff (picture on right), director of the German control body GfRS and member of the board of the European association of control bodies EOCC, emphazised the urgency of a stronger focus on the risk-oriented approach to organic controls. As an example, he mentioned large-scale organic animal production farms with animal welfare problems in Germany. According to Neuendorff, recent fraud cases indicate that cross-border communication and cooperation between competent authorities in the EU was in need of improvement. The interfaces between organic control and criminal prosecution must be clearly defined. In the case of serious infringements it is important to apply sanctions with a deterrent effect. He added that the inspections carried out in third countries also have to be improved. However, in Neuendorff’s opinion the current EU proposal to revise the whole organic regulationdoes  not address these shortcomings. What it contained was myriad new rules that would lead to a further strong burocratisation of the control system. His conclusion: “If this proposal becomes reality, organic control will be watered down instead of being improved.”
In his contribution, Marcus Girnau (picture on left), deputy managing director of the Bund für Lebensmittelrecht und Lebensmittelkunde – representing the German food industry - expressed his surprise that scarcely seven years after the last complete revision of the EU Organic Regulation everything was to be changed once again: “The BLL is astonished that an area of law is being re-jigged once again in such a short time.” What linked BÖLW with BLL was the fact that they were interested in an EU organic law of a high standard and a fair division between the duties of the state and business. In the planned revision Girnau sees a completely “different systemic approach”. He said that the form many of the planned changes would take were not yet available. 30 delegated acts were planned as well as twelve implementing regulations. “This will result in us no longer being involved in many issues.” Girnau too sees widening compulsory certification to include kiosks, markets or the beverages trade as critical. “Favourite products like Bionade won’t be on sale there any more.” On the issue of the EU Organic Regulation, Girnau assured BÖLW that it would have his full support. 
We’re in a mess. We’ve got a bio-savvy EU Commissioner for agriculture who obviously aspires to do something to benefit the organic sector and to create a monument to himself. Then there are some colleagues in the Directorate General Agriculture who not a few people claim don’t have the competence to grasp the complexity of the issues and problems that the organic industry has to deal with. Moreover, DG staff are said to have discredited the IFOAM EU Group, who represent the legitimate interests of the sector across the whole of the EU, as being “business lobbyists”. From the same source came the criticism of other representatives of the organic sector: “You farmers’ representatives are always against everything.”
In contrast, the organic sector has come to a firm conclusion that is the outcome of many discussions and much deliberation: they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This could have serious repercussions. And the solar industry in Germany is evidence that fears of the worst kind are absolutely justified. A flourishing sector with optimal future prospects was sidelined by politicians and sacrificed to international trade with China. Dozens of German solar manufacturers with incalculable know-how were driven into bankruptcy or to selling out to Asian and Arab firms. Thousands of jobs and access to one of the most important technologies for the future have been lost in recent years without adequate reporting by the media.

And finally: the EU Commission’s idea of simplifying the Organic Regulation is a fatal reminder of the idea of a well known German politician who once upon a time demanded that our annual tax returns should fit on a beer mat. Wouldn’t it be nice if the world was as simple and uncomplicated as that – unfortunately, in the real world things are a bit different.





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