With 33 votes to 4 and 7 abstentions, yesterday agriculture MEPs approved a draft text on higher but realistic organic standards, mixed farms, contamination with unauthorised substances and food fraud checks. The next step will be a round of trialogues with the Council to settle on the final wording on the new law.
While organic groups called the proposals a marked improvement on the initial plan – branded ‘a bureaucratic monster’ – they said significant obstacles remained. And in the meantime, there are fears that the uncertainty may be damaging future investment in the European organic sector.
Head of standards at the UK’s Soil Association, Chris Atkinson told FoodNavigator: “Businesses making investment decisions need to have certainty and this keeps a lot of questions open. The whole point of the regulation is to underpin growth but the process is working against that.”
Atkinson said he regretted it had taken so much time and effort to reach another status quo that offered little in the way of innovation, but added that it was too soon to tell what the finalised legislation would look like. “It’s effectively a large jigsaw puzzle and we need to see how it fits together to see if it forms a coherent whole.”
A new precautionary measure to increase accountability would not allow a product to bear the organic label if it was found to contain unauthorised pesticides – unless it can be shown that the contamination was unavoidable and the organic farmer had used all precautionary measures. In an interview on Europarl TV, rapporteur Martin Hausling of Germany's Green/EFA party, said the organic sector could not be expected to have a zero tolerance policy for unauthorised pesticides when 95% of farmland was for conventional crops, “This would mean punishing them for damage caused by their neighbours.”
MEPs backed the Commission’s plan to make controls more risk-based but insisted on retaining at least one, annual, on-site check for all organic farms. Organic associations had said that systematic controls are crucial to maintaining consumer faith in the organic logo.
The Parliament and Council also allowed for mixed farms as long as there is a clear seperation between conventional and organic practices. This was welcomed by Copa-Cogeca which said it would allow farmers to convert gradually to organic whilst safeguarding their farm's viability.
Harmonising organic standards remained a sticking point. Intended to provide guarantees of quality to consumers, it was slammed as being unrealistic for small-scale farmers working in different geographical, economic and cultural contexts - as well as failing to reflect European consumer demands.
“It’s a strong word to use but it’s quite imperialistic of the EU to expect its own organic standards for developing countries,” said Atkinson. “A mindset that says the EU way is the only way is wrong and we think consumers understand that. They don’t expect coffee or chocolate to be produced to EU standards as those ingredients simply can’t be produced in the EU.”
Groups are now looking towards the next round of talks as the next chance to make further changes. Copa-Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen said: “During the trialogues the Council and the European Parliament should be able to overcome the obstacles in order to achieve the goal of having an improved organic farming legislation, thus supporting the development of the EU organic farming sector.”