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Member of the European Commission responsible for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries

The future of organic farming

European Hearing on Organic Food and Farming

Brussels, 22 January 2004

Dear President, ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen

Good morning and welcome to Brussels!

It is good to see all of you here, since your presence is a proof of the fact that organic farming is still very much an issue high on the agenda.

And rightly so!

It is an issue with a long and constant history. More recently it has moved high on the political agenda and this resulted in organic food being available more widely for a broad public.

But what does this mean? Why should there be organic food and farming and how would we like to see it develop?

This are all questions relating to the hearing of today and I would like to share with you how it all started on the European level, where we are now and what we would like to find out today, in order to proceed with the scheduled finalisation of the Action Plan.

The idea of a European Action plan was born during a conference in Denmark in 2001, which was a follow up of a conference in Austria in 1999. The issue was brought up by the Swedish Presidency and the Agriculture Council invited the Commission in June 2001 to study the possibility of developing a European Action Plan with the objective of promoting organic food and farming and present appropriate proposals.

The European Commission and The Council in its conclusions recognized that organic farming was one way to achieve sustainable development and noted amongst others the importance of the existing legal framework and the fact that Member States have the possibility to promote organic farming within their respective Rural Development Programmes.

The Commission took this task very seriously from the beginning, anxious to play a productive role in order to developed realistic and sustainable scenarios for this, sometimes, fragile sector.

Since then we have discussed this issue in a special stakeholder group, in the Standing Committee on Organic Farming and in the Advisory Committee as well as in the Council. In addition to this we launched an Internet consultation which took place last year. Discussions took place in the European Parliament which expressed itself in very much endorsing and supporting organic farming.

I am very glad that the Irish Presidency has taken over the banner, and as you could just hear from the Minister, will give this issue an important boost.

So, we are not starting from scratch here, we already collected a number of ideas and suggestions which helped us in finding what we believe to be the right questions for today's hearing, being the followup to this series of discussions.

After the Hearing of today the Commission will develop the Action Plan and transmit it to the Council and Parliament by the end of April.

I would like to introduce what has been achieved so far to enhance environmental and animal welfare friendly farming systems, of which organic farming is a prime example.

Last year in June an agreement was reached on a reform of the Common Agriculture Policy. With its emphasis on the long-term economic and social viability for the agricultural sector, with the provision of safe, high quality agricultural products by methods offering a high degree of respect towards the environment, we expect the 2003 CAP reform to provide a highly positive framework for the future development of organic farming in Europe.

The new principle of de-coupled support makes it easier for farmers to extensify animal production and grow crops more suitable for organic farming. The familiarity of the organic sector in producing to defined, strict production methods and backing them up with an on-farm control system create a relative advantage for organic farmers when respecting of cross compliance is concerned. The removal of the mandatory set-aside is designed to benefit organic farming. Finally, Member States have the choice to dedicate up to 10 % of their national envelopes to supporting quality production such as environmental friendly farming.

But organic producers are also well placed to capitalise on certain rural development measures that have been either introduced or strengthened under CAP reform. They will be rewarded for quality, welfare and environmental standards that go beyond the norms of cross-compliance. I would like to bring to your attention the reinforced support for processing, and consumer information and promotion initiatives. They can benefit from support for "innovative" approaches to food processing, and they are eligible for assistance in adapting to meet new EU standards. I am convinced that we are now on the right track to securing a comprehensive strategy that will underpin the future development of organic farming in the EU.

After recalling the progress already made I would like to return to the Action Plan itself. The consultations until now have identified several important questions. Let me just mention a few of the ideas:

  • Improve the information to consumers

  • Improve the links between the producers and the market

  • Improve the funding for research in organic farming

  • Further harmonise inspection and standards for organic farming throughout the EU

But before going into detail it would be helpful to place the discussion in the context of the emerging information on the development of the market for organic produce.

Organic agriculture appears to growing. At the same time I often hear that organic farmers cannot market their products as organic. This illustrates that supply and demand are not always in balance. Another important observation is that its uptake in mainstream retailing, particularly in supermarkets, could be the most important factor in making them available to a wider and concerned public.

Both supply and demand have expanded during the last several years. Despite this growth, the average market share for organic products is small, about 2 percent in the EU, with some notable exceptions such as the share of organic vegetables at 5-10%. In some regions the market and the production are still growing but in other regions the development has slowed down.

The question then arises on how we can facilitate trade and consumption of organic products in the EU? But also, what needs to be done to facilitate processing, distribution and marketing? How can we ensure traceability and organic authenticity?

As the sector is still relative small distributions problems are paramount. We need to consider what can be done to improve this situation. We need to consider how we reach the consumers and make them aware of the many different benefits of organic products and the organic production system. Do we need to launch new information campaigns to raise consumer awareness and recognition of the products on the supermarket shelves? Do we need to do something to improve the consumer confidence in organic farming? Maybe we need to extend the standards to respond even better to environment requirements, animal welfare and food quality?

Speaking about the regulatory framework. Is there a need to better define the objectives of organic farming in terms of responding to societal concerns? Do we need stricter or clearer standards? What could be vital improvements to the inspection systems? This should of course also cover imported products. I am looking forward to hear from you.

We cannot talk about the perspectives for organic agriculture without also looking at the perspectives for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). So also this point is also on the agenda today.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have outlined the importance of bearing in mind during the discussions today the new framework we have given to the CAP, through the latest reform decisions, the challenges facing the organic sector in the development of its market and the need to think carefully about organic farming standards in this broader context.

As you have seen in the programme, we will have three sessions today, one session on the place of organic farming in European agriculture, one session on the role of organic farming in the wider European society and a concluding session.

The chairmen of both sessions will provide you with a short contextual background of each session along with a number of questions and issues which are relevant for the subject, before the respective speakers start with their interventions.

In the final session we will discuss how the Hearing of today could add up to ideas for the Action Plan. So, leading on from the valuable input to our work on the European Action Plan for Organic Farming we have received in our consultations so far, I do hope that you have some clear ideas on the questions we are raising and we will be listening carefully to what you have to say.

I wish us all an interesting and fruitful day!

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