‘Uncertainty’ over measures to close EU organic supply-demand gap

By Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS contact

- Last updated on GMT

'It's only now we feel we can talk about opportunities for strengthening the proposals," Atkinson said.
'It's only now we feel we can talk about opportunities for strengthening the proposals," Atkinson said.

Related tags: European union, European commission

European organic agriculture lags behind growing demand for organic food, but new EU rules in the pipeline are creating uncertainty in the sector at just the wrong time, says Soil Association head of standards Chris Atkinson.

The European organic market has increased fourfold over the past decade according to EU figures, but organic agricultural land has only doubled over the same period.To support growth in the sector and to increase consumer confidence, the European Commission proposed stricter rules​ for organic production and import in March last year, and the legislation is expected to come into effect by 2017.

However, some organic producers think the Commission’s approach is inappropriate.  

“For organic businesses and producers the last thing they need is significant uncertainty about what the baseline requirements are going to be around organic production,”​ Atkinson told FoodNavigator.

Lack of consumer confidence?

“There is a big gap between what Europe is producing and what Europe is consuming. …We agree that the Commission has identified this gap but we think their approach to revising organic legislation isn’t the right one. They consider there is a risk to consumer confidence but we would argue that that’s not the case. The strong market growth suggests that confidence isn’t a problem.”

Indeed, organic sales across Europe increased by more than 25% in the five years to August 2013. The UK has been an exception, where sales contracted 1.5% during this time – but the market has since rebounded, growing 1.6% in the year to September 2014.

 “It’s quite scary times for the producers and I think a lot of them are quite puzzled about why the Commission has chosen this particular time,” ​Atkinson said. “… [The Commission] seems to have started out with the mindset that the organic sector is happy with the status quo and I don’t think they really have any evidence for that.”

Layers of changes

Specifically, he said organic production needed to be recognised as “taking place in a world that’s set up to favour conventional production”​, where farmers need time to make the transition to 100% organic systems – and he urged stronger dialogue between the Commission and the organic industry.

“The proposal contains a lot of new layers of changes and it seems to bear down on what it sees as diversions from the highest goals for organic production,”​ he said.

“…For the past six months we have had to argue against certain aspects of the proposal and it is only now that we feel we can get to the point where we can talk about the opportunities for strengthening the proposals.

“We are asking for clear, time-structured ways of getting to the highest requirements.”

In the UK, the organic market represents 1.3% of total grocery spending, according to market research organisation Nielsen. Denmark boasts the most developed organic market in the world as a share of total spending, where organic sales represented 7.6% of the total grocery market in 2012. Germany and France are the largest European organic markets by value, worth €6.6bn and €3.7bn respectively.

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