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Organic production in the European Union (I): current outlook and regulatory developments

Disclaimer: This article is intended to disclose verified information with which anyone can form their own opinion on the subject discussed below.

General data on organic production in the European Union 

Since the 1960s and 1970s when organic farming in Europe began to take shape, demand has grown to become a 30.7 billion euro market by 2016. The cultivated area has also been growing and in the last decade has increased by 70% reaching almost 7% of the total agricultural area of the EU in 2017 and accounting for 18% of the world’s organic agricultural area. Within the European Union, the largest producer is Spain with 16.6%, followed by Italy with 15.2% and France with 13.9%. Germany ranks fourth with 9% (2017 data). 

A graph of the top countries with the largest area of organic food production

Despite the increase in the area dedicated to organic production, we must not lose sight of the fact that nearly 45% of it are permanent pastures. A fact that hangs over the heads of producers who doubt whether or not to switch to organic farming is that in organic farming the yield can be reduced between 15% and 60% compared to a conventional crop. At the time of making the decision, one of the variables analyzed by producers is whether the drop in yield can be offset by a higher selling price. 

There is a paradox in the European Union that the countries with the largest area dedicated to organic farming are not its main consumers since Germany with 9,500 million euros and France with 6,700 million are the main consumers of organic produce in the EU. Today, Europe is the second-largest consumer of organic products after the USA. 

Summary of the legal situation of EC in the Union: current regulations and amendments for 2021

Organic production in the European Union is regulated and controlled to ensure that all member countries have the same obligations and opportunities. The EU sets the rules of the game in the following regulations:

  1. Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 on organic production and labeling of organic products

  2. Commission Regulation (EC) No 889/2008 laying down detailed rules for the implementation

  3. Regulation (EU) 2017/625 on official controls performed to ensure the application of food and feed law

  4. Reglamento (UE) 2018/848 – new organic production regulation (from 2021)

Consumer confidence is crucial in the organic food market. Consumers need to be confident that they are buying a product that meets their expectations, and that is why we need an organization that englobes and defines the legal framework for producers and consumers. 

The harmonization of criteria is key to avoid possible confusion for the consumer when buying an organic product. In other words, the consumer has to know that the organic seal guarantees that the regulations have been complied with regardless of the country where the product comes from. In the 2007 regulation, the main objective was harmonization, but the EU is also aware of the enormous agro-climatic diversity that exists in European territories. Therefore, it took a more flexible approach in order to “allow ecological standards and requirements to be adapted to local climate or geographical conditions, to different agricultural practices and stages of development”, always “within the limits of specific conditions established in Community legislation” (see Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007).

In other words, the Member States could allow certain actions, but no one can bypass the rules on organic production. An example of an exception would be the use of “demarcated beds” in Sweden, Finland and Denmark as the National Certification Authorities have permitted their use even though in the 2007 regulation it was specifically regulated that the crop should be linked to the soil. Other exceptions refer to the use of non-organic plant material when no certified organic material has been found; or to the use of a certain component in the preparation of food in a temporary manner since the equivalent component in organic is not available. 

The new legislation, which will enter into force in January 2021, aims to further harmonize production criteria, eliminating derogations, and to control products at all links in the chain. While a better control is being considered, the aim is to reduce the bureaucracy to which farmers are subjected, which means that the EU has a major challenge in finding this balance. In the coming months, we will see what specific provisions this regulation is translated into. 

Illustration ECO CrowdFarming

What changes in the new regulations?

Fewer controls on excellent producers: For the producers that have had a clean record after three consecutive years, controls can be made every two years instead of annually. 

The removal of exceptions: the derogations that had been granted will be progressively eliminated and the framework for new derogations to be minimal, consensual and temporary is established. 

New products: salt, cork or essential oils will have their place in the regulations.

Simplification for farmers: group certification is created for small producers. 

Mixed farms: as long as they are clearly differentiated and delimited, it will be allowed that on the farm there is part organic and part conventional. It is intended that farmers are encouraged to try with part of the farm and not all at once. 

Same import conditions: farmers outside the EU will have to meet the same criteria to export their products to the EU. Instead of establishing equivalences, the principle of conformity will prevail and it will be the EU that establishes it instead of each member state. 

This new regulation was set with very ambitious harmonization objectives and has had to be adjusted throughout the negotiations held for several years until its approval in November 2017. The ratification with votes against by countries such as Finland, Austria or the Czech Republic, and the abstention of Germany and Belgium, gives an idea of how difficult and controversial this new regulation is. 

Note: this article has a second part where we analyze if the regulation of the ecological seal is the same in all countries.

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