Demand for organic food in Europe is growing - ten years ago the market was worth €12 billion, today it's more than €26bn - and it’s a lucrative market for farmers, retailers and manufacturers alike.
An organic logo currently commands a premium of between 15 and 30%, according to Christian Verschueren, general-director of Europe’s biggest retail lobby Eurocommerce. There’s also lots of scope for this to grow according to both the country and category, he said.
Organic market penetration is around 7% of total retail sales in Austria and Denmark but in Spain and Portugal it sits at just 1%. Meanwhile some commodities such as organic eggs have a high market share - around 22% in Austria and Switzerland - but for other foods, such as meat, bread and cheese it’s between one and 4% in France and Germany.
“The market figures show the demand is there,” Verschueren told us. “The difficulty is finding supply.”
This supply is made even more tenuous by the possibility of organic products losing their logo when they contain unauthorised pesticides, as is the case in Belgium, Italy and the Czech Republic where decertification is automatic.
Contamination is currently tolerated by other member states but the Commission has been working on a proposal to replace the current organic regulation since 2013. This proposal includes setting maximum threshold levels for unauthorised pesticides in organic produce. Any food exceeding these maximum limits could not be sold as organic.
Opposition has come from various stakeholders who argue it would punish producers whose crops have been accidentally contaminated by neighbouring farmers spraying their fields with conventional pesticides.
It would also be in breach of Europe’s ‘polluter pays’ principle. Bavo van den Idsert, board member of Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements IFOAM EU, said earlier this month that “automatic decertification level on residues is a no-go area”.
Eurocommerce is against setting thresholds, arguing it would send the message that some level of contamination is appropriate, as well as putting Europe’s organic supplies, already tight, under even further strain.
Policy director at the UK’s certification body Soil Association Peter Melchett agrees that it could cause shortages. “If organic products had to be decertified as a result of any pesticide contamination, even where it is as a result of environmental contamination outside of the farmer’s control, it may have an effect on the amount of organic products on the shelves.
“Some farmers may not be able to afford to go to the extra cost of producing crops organically only to have their status taken away through no fault of their own and have to sell them at a price that did not cover the cost of production.”
Meanwhile the European Parliament has put forward its own proposal to the organic regulation which stipulates that producers would be stripped of their organic certification only in the case of repeated fraud.
In the past, farmers have felt the pressure to cut corners over organic certification or origin labelling in order to keep precious contracts with retailers. In 2013 it was revealed that millions of eggs sold in France as organic and French were in fact from Italy.
‘Almost organic’ vegetables
Verschueren spoke of different initiatives taken by European retailers to support a more stable and holistic organic food system.
Earlier this year Belgian retailer Colruyt began selling almost-organic ‘transitioning vegetables’ from vegetable farmer De Lochting who is in the process of converting to organic but has another two years before it achieves full certification.
“It helps farmers to bridge a difficult financial period. They might not actually command the same premium price that organic vegetables have but it’s somewhere in between,” he said.
Consumers who purchase these so-called ‘transitioning vegetables’ – the range includes pumpkin, beetroot, parsley and kohlrabi – may expect there to be traces of conventional pesticides.
But can the same be said for consumers expectations of fully certified organic produce? And if Commission's thresholds are not set, does that mean the consumer, who pays more for organic, is being ripped off?
To focus on pesticides alone also misses out on other important aspects of organic agriculture and manufacturing, said Melchett.
“Organic certification covers all aspects of production. This includes processing – for example, organic products must not contain many of the synthetic processing aids and additives that are allowed in non-organic food and drink. For meat, dairy and eggs, it covers animal welfare requirements; and for arable production it protects the soil, water and wider environment, including wildlife.”
For Verschueren, transparency is key.“It’s important that you are open and honest with consumers – this is organic and this is what it means. Zero risk does not exist.”