The last decade has led to a significant increase in the consumer demand for organically produced goods in EU. The EU now ranks second in global organic consumption, accounting for about 37 % of the global market (reference year 2017). Due to this, a revision of the existing organic farming Regulations 834/2007 and 889/2008, published in 2007/2008 seemed necessary and prudent at the start of the revision process in 2012. The first draft of the new Regulation was presented by Commission already in 2014 but several years of discussions and revisions led to entry into force of the new Regulation in 2022 only. However, several interim developments in various fields such as climate change, socio-economic requirements and sustainability goals, circular economy, water pollution, rural development or the Covid pandemic have changed the general conditions and economic importance as well as the expectations in organic farming significantly. Therefore, the changes in EU regulations for organic farming and organic agri-inputs, currently implemented by entry into force of the new Regulations 2018/848 and 2021/1165 from 2021 and 2022 onwards, reflect only a small part of the ongoing changes.
In the last years, the organic acreage in the EU increased annually by 5.6 % on average, which represents about 18 % of the global organic area, equivalent to about 14 million hectares. However, there are considerable differences between EU Member States regarding consumption of organic goods as well as the area under organic cultivation. Spain, Italy, France, and Germany account for over half of EU’s organic area but regarding the share of total land Austria, Estonia and Sweden have the highest acreage with about 20 % in each country. Similar differences exist regarding the consumption of organic food, including imports.
Due to these differences, the new Regulations mostly aim for harmonisation, simplification and economic feasibility of organic rules and markets. According to the European Commission the main changes introduced by the new Regulation are i) strengthening of the control system, ii) helping to build up further consumer confidence in the EU organics system, iii) provision of new rules for producers which will make it easier for smaller farmers to convert to organic production, iv) new rules on imported organic goods to ensure that all organic products sold in the EU are of the same standard as well as v) new rules for certification. Especially the new certification and import rules will have a strong impact on the agricultural inputs. For one, the new Regulation allows for group certification not only in third countries but also within the EU whereat the maximum size of a group is 2000 members. Each group must implement its own Internal Control System, including a nominated body to ensure that all members of the group comply. For another, the principle for import of organic goods has changed from the principle of equivalence to the principle of conformity. The old Regulation 834/2007 allowed for organic goods produced in ways different from EU standards but accepted to be equivalent in terms of their outcome and alignment with organic principles. In contrast to this, in accordance with the new Regulation 2018/848, the organic producers in third countries will have to be conform with the same set of rules as those in the EU, including of course products used in organic farming such as plant protection products or fertilisers. Regarding the authorisation of products and substances for use in organic production, Commission Implementing Regulation 2021/1165 was published in July 2021. The new Regulation distinguishes plant protection products between the category basic substance, low risk substances, microorganisms, and specific additional actives substances, listed in the annex I of the Regulation. The least restrictions exist for microorganisms in future whereat all micro-organisms listed in Parts A, B and D of the Annex to Implementing Regulation 540/2011 may be used in organic production if they are not GMO and used in accordance with authorised uses. Similar for many basic substances.
Overall, rules for farmers for example regarding certification or production rules, importers or control procedures will change significantly. But, with some exceptions as for microbial active substances and many basic substances, the new Regulation does not foresee for any changes or innovations regarding agricultural practises as for example the use of plant protection products or fertilisers. Thus, the impact on agricultural stakeholders such as producers of fertilisers or plant protection products is very low. The new Regulation does not even introduce revised, more practical rules for authorisation of products and substances for use in organic production. This is due to several reasons. For one, plant protection and fertilisation in organic farming of course do not have the same importance as in conventional agriculture. On the other hand, the main organic land use in EU still is permanent grassland (> 40%), followed by green fodder and cereals. Only about 10% of the organic area comprises of permanent crops. Thus, for many of the organic agricultural goods currently produced in EU, plant protection is of minor importance. Consequently, revision of or even new rules for the use of plant protection products and fertilisers are not in the centre of attention of the new Regulation.
However, this could change significantly in the near future due to new developments in the last few years in regard for example to climate change, socio-economic goals, circular economy, or the COVID-19 pandemic which are, until now, reflected only to a very limited extend by the new Regulations. Therefore, the new Regulation itself may be regarded as the new legal and regulatory framework for organic production only, with a lot of new and additional practical arrangements and implications to come.
At first glance, organic farming, mostly ignored by most policy makers, industry, or the public for decades, is a rewarding and simple target to implement political environmental targets set by Green Deals or the Sustainability Goals. But, at second glance it becomes evident that the newly emphasised importance of organic farming rather arises from the increasing realisation that organic production offers many approaches and solutions to amend for the current economic and systemic problems, not only in agriculture. This of course includes the already acknowledged environmental problems such as climate change, the consequences of the loss of biodiversity or soil depletion. However, on a closer look, main drivers are economic considerations such as rural development, food prices or the need for strong national markets for important goods such as food, as the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown.
Thus, after publication of EUs Green Deal, including the Farm to Fork and the biodiversity strategy, Commission published its action plan for the development of organic production for the 2021 to 2027 period in March 2021. Contrary to the new Regulation 2018/848, the action plan considers the Green Deal goal of 25% organic farming area until 2030 and especially its practical implementation and the underlying market-driven implementation strategy. The action plan consists of three major axes: 1. Stimulating demand and securing consumer trust, 2. Stimulating conversion and reinforcing the value chain and 3. Improving the contribution of organic farming to sustainability. Analysis of both, the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has shown that the lack of involvement of local and regional authorities in the past has strongly hampered development of organic production. CoR and EESC highlight the key role of local and regional authorities in the transition to organic production. Beside environmental goals, for Member States there are several reasons why local and regional authorities should support the development of organic farming such as maintenance and increase of employment in rural areas or short food supply chains to enrich regions by spending money locally. The success of the so-called bio-districts, introduced in Italy in 2009, is a practical example for effectiveness of such rural support schemes. In Italy a bio-district is a defined geographical area where farmers, citizens, tourist operators, associations and public authorities cooperate for the sustainable management of local resources, based on organic principles and practices. The observed increase in the value chain of products produced in the first Italian bio-districts led to the establishment of more than 30 bio-districts in many regions of Italy until now with several more in preparation.
In addition, CoR and EESC identify organic farming as an efficient and profitable way to enable e.g., water conservation to coexist with farming. EU Commission emphasises that the action plan as well as the relevant analysis of the agricultural markets has clearly shown the range of policies impacting on the future of the agriculture and the organic sector including policies pertinent to all elements of the food system: sustainability, health, climate, agricultural promotion, public procurement, training and education, research and innovation (including the role played by agricultural knowledge and innovation systems), taxation, environment, etc.. There is a census of nearly all stakeholders that EUs Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) must play a key role in the implementation of the organic farming action plan not only to support but specially to enforce the plans on national levels.
In this regard it is important to consider that higher prices for organic food are not mainly due to higher production costs compared to conventional farming. Rather, lower prices for conventionally produced goods are due to subsidies favouring conventional, non-sustainable farming methods. As for example OPTA (Organic Processing and Trade Association Europe) additionally highlighted, many environmental costs caused by non-sustainable production methods (in and outside agriculture) are externalized, especially in the food production chain and these costs are passed on to the public. OPTA therefore emphasises the need for true food prices as they are an effective tool in the market economy and can steer consumers towards sustainable consumption.
Overall, it is evident that organic production can play a major role in the necessary and overly due reform of the agricultural and food production sectors. But it is also evident that “simply” converting 25 % of EUs agricultural area will not suffice to solve the current problems. Close interactions and reform of all policy areas and especially the reform of the CAP as one of the key components will be necessary to implement the organic farming action plan. And even the ambitious-looking current goals and actions set out by EUs organic action plan are still short of the mark in many aspects. This is especially true for many practical aspects such as the use of plant protection products in organic farming. As discussed above, currently only a minor share of the organic area are permanent, speciality or horticultural crops, requiring higher plant protecting efforts as for example grassland or cereals. To increase the organic acreage of such crops, farmers will have to have more diversified methods and products available to be able to permanently and sustainably convert to organic farming also considering that climate change also affects organically grown crops. But, as already stated, neither the new organic farming regulation nor the action plan takes this into true consideration until now. This not only applies for organic farming, but also for integrated production and integrated pest management in the scope of the biodiversity or farm to fork strategies. Therefore, out of necessity, respective amendments and refinements to the current rules are to be expected in the near future; maybe also triggered by global developments since countries such as Japan, having also already introduced Green Deals and similar organic farming goals, will face similar problems.
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