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Daily News Blog

27
Apr

European Parliament Sets Stronger Organic Regulations than U.S., Rejects Labeling Hydroponic as Organic

(Beyond Pesticides, April 27, 2018)  After more than five years of intensive negotiations, European Members of Parliament (MEP) overwhelmingly passed the long-anticipated, new organic certification and labeling regulations, with 466 voting in favor, 124 against and 50 abstentions. While the European Union (EU) Council of Ministers, must formally adopt the regulations, their easy passage is expected. Regulations will take effect in January 2021. The new organic regulations are purported to provide more clarity to organic producers and consumers and to harmonize organic regulation across the EU. But, they also are likely to fuel disharmony with the U.S. National Organic Program (NOP) by failing to act swiftly to curtail fraudulent organic exports and by prohibiting hydroponics systems of production in organic, which the US currently allows.

“The development of organic production is a political objective of the EU,” According to the EP’s background document on the regulations. As a strategy for increasing organic agriculture, which now encompasses 6.7% of EU agricultural land, MEPs intend for the new regulations to encourage more farmers to go organic, enhance consumer trust in the EU organic logo, and improve the quality of organic food. According to the European Parliament’s press release, “Strict, risk-based checks will take place along the supply chain” to facilitate product traceability and boost consumer confidence in the authenticity of the organic foods they buy.

Similar to the situation in the U.S. where organic fraud is on the rise, the EU acknowledges the problem by requiring stricter fraud precautions to be taken. Equivalency rules that currently allow non-EU countries to comply with comparable but not exact standards will be phased-out, within the extended timeframe of five years. New regulatory language encourages operators who produce, prepare, import or use organic products to report suspicious imports to the appropriate authorities. Member states are also authorized to take their own enforcement action to avoid fraudulent imports and to notify other member states of their action.

It remains to be seen if these measures prove sufficient for U.S, organic consumers and producers to feel confident that the EU is affording adequate fraud protections for the organic food that passes through its borders. In the US, where at least half of the organic products sold are imported, a recent Inspector General Audit of USDA concluded that it was “unable to provide reasonable assurances” that imported commodities labeled organic were indeed coming from certified organic farms. The situation of rampant fraudulent imports has created substantial economic hardship for US organic grain and soy farmers, where per bushel prices and market share have plummeted since 2015. Executive Director of the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, Inc., John Bobbe, estimates that between 60 and 70 percent of organic imports may be fraudulent. “Some come through Turkey, where fraud is rampant, and some from India, where standards are not checked thoroughly for sanitation issues. He thinks Turkish organized crime is involved, with colleagues in Russia and Ukraine.”

The other important point of contention between the EU’s and U.S,’ organic standards is the EU’s explicit prohibition of hydroponic systems of organic food production to be certified organic. In reaffirming that organic systems of production depend upon thriving soil ecosystems, the EU regulation states that “plants should be produced on and in living soil in connection with the subsoil and bedrock. Consequently, hydroponic production should not be allowed nor growing plants in containers, bags or beds where the roots are not in contact with living soil.”

This provision flies in the face of the 2017 decision of the U.S. National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to allow soilless, hydroponically-produced organic food without requiring labeling. The NOSB overturned a previous 2010 Board decision to prohibit the practice despite widespread public opposition and demands to “keep organic in the soil.” In response, this spring U.S. farmers have created the Real Organic Project, which rejects hydroponic as an organic method and establishes other standards that the U.S. Department of Agriculture refused to implement, despite explicit recommendations from the NOSB. The Real Organic Project is establishing an add-on label to the USDA certified organic label that will let consumers know which commodities meet the standards of the organic law and consumer expectations. While hydroponic food production is already forbidden in the EU, the new regulations clarify instances where non-soil based, organic production is allowed such as in the production of ornamental plants, sprouted seeds, and herbs in pots. These allowances are justified in order to facilitate early growing stages of plants and in instances for which “no risk exists that the consumer is misled regarding the production method.”

Some EU countries, such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland, have been allowing the use of “demarcated beds in greenhouses” as organic, but in the agreement struck with Parliament those countries will be given 10 years phase-out the practice. An interim report is required to be produced on the status of those greenhouses within 5 years. Similar to the situation in the Nordic countries, some US organic certification agencies have been acting independently in the absence of regulations, certifying hydroponic operations and creating their own rules with respect to the organic soil requirement.  While some certifiers allow crops to be grown in an undefined “biodegradable substrate,” others do not. This has created confusion in the marketplace and angered many farmers and consumers who note that the text in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) specifically states that farmers shall “foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.” It makes clear that soil health management is central to organic systems of production as evidenced by the detailed expectations of organic farmers in their annual organic crop and animal production system plan.

Other organic management practices strengthened by the new EU regulations include increasing data collection on organic seed and organic animal availability. The allowed use of conventional seeds and animals in organic production is scheduled to terminate by 2035, but that date could change depending upon the progress made. Mixed organic and conventional production by the same farmer will still be allowed, provided that the two systems of production are clearly delineated. To make it easier for small farmers to enter into organic farming, a group certification will be allowed. This issue has been raise on several occasions in the U.S. but has been rejected to date.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources:  News European Parliament; Food Navigator; Cornucopia

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