IFOAM and UN unveil tools to smooth organic trade

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Organic agriculture, Organic food

A six-year effort to harmonise trade in organic produce between markets with different standards and environmental conditions has yielded fruit, with the launch of two tools to establish equivalence between standards and improve market access for farmers in developing countries.

While organic trade is expanding by between 15 and 20 per cent per year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are some 400 different public and private certification bodies in operation worldwide – as well as government technical regulations and certification performance requirements.

Since products certified under one system may not be easily recognized under another, this causes organisational problems and increased costs for organic producers and exporters.

The new tools being introduced, called Equitool and IROCB (International Requirements for Organic Certification Bodies), are the up-shot of six years of collaborative work by the International Task Force on Harmonization and Equivalence in Organic Agriculture (IFT).

Made up of the FAO, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), IFT held its 8th and final meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, this week.

Equitool and IROCB

Equitool is intended to allow people making decisions on organic sourcing to assess whether organic standards for production and processing in one part of the world, where one set of local socio-economic and agro-ecological conditions apply, are equivalent (though not identical) to standards elsewhere, whether other conditions apply.

It includes assessment criteria, and emphasises reference to two international standards for organics: IFOAM’s basic standards and Codex Alimentarius Commission’s guidelines on production, processing, labelling and marketing.

IROCB – pronounced ‘eye-rock-bee’ – is designed to enable recognition of organic certification bodies around the world. It includes performance requirements for certification, and is based on ISO 65 (general requirements for bodies operating product certification systems).

Not new standards

Thomas Cierpka, senior manager of HR and administration at IFOAM, stressed to FoodNavigator.com that the new tools are not new standards themselves, but means for assessing the many existing standards and providing a basis for their equivalence.

He said it is important to accept there are regional differences in possibilities organic agriculture. To illustrate the point, he said that a cow in Switzerland could not have access to one or two acres of pasture in wintertime, because the snowy conditions would mean it would risk death.

In New Zealand, on the other hand, the conditions are such that a cow may have three to four acres at its disposal, all year round.

Although organic farming is particularly well suited to small hold farms, the barriers mean that many producers cannot realise the economic, environmental, health and social benefits of organic agriculture that are flagged by the FAO.

The matter is especially pressing for resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

For consumers, it also imposes limits the organic produce that is available, and pushes up prices.

A long process

Cierpka said that the tools that have been developed have their roots in the conference on International Harmonization and Equivalence in Organic Agriculture held six years ago in Nuremburg, Germany. The process has been lengthy since, although participants in the private and public sector support the organic trade, their differing agendas have thrown up some barriers.

In this challenging context, he said: “We were happy to have a breakthrough at the last meeting.”

Although the global set of organic standards is by no means static, and it will take a while before the new tools are fully implemented, FAO assistant director-general Alexander Mueller was positive about their benefits.

“Rather than losing time, money and markets in the jungle of standards and regulations, the ITF has laid the basis for harmonious cooperation for those interested in facilitating the growth of the organic sector, while maintaining the integrity of the system,”​ he said.

The organic food market was valued by analyst Organic Monitor at over US$40bn (c€25.8 bn) in 2007.

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