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

Towards a European action plan on organic food and farming

European Hearing on Organic Food and Farming

Brussels, 22 January 2004

Ladies and gentlemen,

"Added value" and "high quality" are not just assets that can be attributed to organic produce, and I would like to begin by extending my thanks to our speakers and panellists who fuelled this morning's discussions in such an energetic and informative way. I think that you, and the rest of our participants here today, have raised much food for thought, and the variety of contributions you have made, and conclusions that have been drawn, will play a valuable role in the ongoing discussions surrounding organic agriculture. It has reiterated, once again, the pace at which this sector is developing, and the importance of identifying a coherent and comprehensive action plan.

In my final comments I would like to address three issues that appear to be crucial for the future: the market, the role of public support and the standards.

As far as the market is concerned, we have heard a lot today about how important a balanced supply and demand will be for the future development of organic. You also mentioned that a healthy and sustained development of the organic sector is only possible when the market demand is properly served.

The importance of a balanced market was also emphasised in the conclusions of last month's Agriculture Council. It unanimously adopted conclusions on a strategy for a European Action Plan that underlined, in terms of market demand, the importance of:

  • maintaining and developing the organic sector's production base;

  • evaluating the impact of reform on organic agriculture;

  • of introducing initiatives that improve the marketing conditions, that ensure better consumer information, and that promote consumption and trade in third countries;

  • of promoting, not least internationally, a common definition of "organic farming" and of "organic product";

It also questioned the possibility of establishing an independent Committee to provide scientific and technical advice, or an economic observatory to evaluate the evolution of supply and demand of organic produce.

So, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is clear that opinions are converging on the future direction of organic agriculture, and we will use the Action Plan to examine what framework is needed to improve the monitoring and analysis of the evolution of supply and demand, and to harness the full potential of organic farming.

To do so, we must first make use of existing structures, for example, by promoting co-operation between economic actors at regional, national and European level. Or we could improve the collection of statistical data using the resources already available to us, for example, at Eurostat. Such data would not only provide the tools to base policy on, but would also greatly advance business decisions.

Making the most of market potential is not just a question of data analysis, it is also a question of informing consumers giving them "information leads", as you suggested this morning. They need to be made aware of the nature and advantages of organic farming. They must be able to recognise organic produce on the shelves, and they must have easy and convenient access to a large variety of high quality produce.

The first possible Action in this respect is the EU logo. I believe this is an essential instrument to increase the visibility of organic produce, and increase consumer awareness. The success of the "Biosiegel" in Germany is a telling example of how a common logo, combined with powerful information and promotion campaigns, can contribute to improving the market. And, based on what I have heard today, future Actions should concentrate on the various possibilities for EU financed or co-financed information and promotion campaigns.

In my opinion a common logo will help consumers all over Europe and indeed all over the world to recognise organic products. I recognise that many people are concerned about making an EU logo obligatory, and here I would like to stress that I believe there are many benefits in using national and private logos alongside our own. However, I think that we must be aware that the more emblems we use, the more we risk confusing consumers. One solution to this problem would of course be to improve transparency, and make consumers aware of what the different logos represent. This should apply to standards and logos in third countries as well.

Indeed, a growing market share is based on import and export. With the growth of the organic food industry, more and more tropical and other ingredients are sourced outside of the EU. Organic farming has become a global issue. I think the time is now right to evaluate and improve our mechanisms, to ensure that third country standards and inspections are equivalent to our own.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Developing our organic sector is not just a question of consumer awareness. It is also a question of financial assistance, which brings me to the second important set of Actions: public support for organic production. The most important EU instrument is, as you are aware, our Rural Development policy, a policy that is implemented by the Member States. Therefore, any disparity in support between Member States, or between regions is the result of different choices in respect of priorities, specific features and measures.

Agri-environment is by far the most widely used measure benefiting the organic farming, reflecting the sector's high delivery in terms of environmental protection and animal welfare, its role in promoting biodiversity, and preservation of natural resources like soil and water, and its contribution to a variety of landscapes.

Thus, agri-environment measures have contributed to developing the supply of organic produce, which is the first link in the chain. But the products still need to reach the consumers. And we have again heard that more needs to be done to develop the processing, distribution and marketing side of the production chain.

But closer examination of how our rural development programmes are used, reveals that the different instruments that could help this side of the sector are used relatively rarely. A coherent set of measures for the organic sector is a key element for a successful support policy. Therefore I can only invite all involved in the implementation of the programmes to identify weaknesses in the marketing and distribution of organic produce, and introduce appropriate measures in the programmes.

In particular, I would like to draw your attention to the potential of the following new measures:

    1. The new animal welfare measure for which organic animal husbandry methods could qualify. In addition, new, increased maxima for EU co-financing, also for agri-environment, have been introduced.

    2. The new food quality chapter would be particularly useful in developing the demand side. Promoting organic produce, and making full use of rural development possibilities goes hand in hand with organic farming.

But it is not just the new measures that we are introducing that will help to foster the expansion of organic agriculture. As you quite rightly suggested this morning, decoupled support and greater market orientation under the reformed CAP, also lends itself to the development of this sector.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Standards are also an important element where organic agriculture is concerned, which brings me onto the third block of possible actions that I would like to mention.

The EU regulation is one of the oldest and most advanced frameworks for organic farming in the world. In my view there is no doubt that our regulation has been instrumental in the wider recognition and uptake of organic farming. And, along with the growth of organic farming in the EU, our standards have also been updated several times. This is something that should continue, because organic farming in its very nature is a dynamic sector, one that must respond quickly to changes in consumer demand, and one that must react to new scientific and technical developments.

Many of you today have stressed that there is a particular need to develop animal welfare, environmental standards, as well as standards for other areas that are not covered so far. To help with this complex task, one possible Action would be to explore how we can adopt a more scientific working method, based on consulting independent and transparent expert opinion. As I mentioned earlier, the Agriculture Council was more explicit in its conclusions, demanding the setting up, at EU level, of such an independent Committee.

Today's hearing has raised some interesting views on how standards could be used more efficiently as a communication vehicle. For example, how they should send clearer messages on the objectives of organic farming, and how they can demonstrate more clearly its role in protecting the environment; or the example it sets in terms of animal welfare standards, and its contribution to biodiversity, to improving soil fertility and resistance to diseases. This can all be done in the Action Plan by defining these objectives in our legislation.

As to the inspection system, I agree this also has a vital role to play in building consumer confidence. Some improvements have been implemented in recent years, and in the very near future the Council may conclude on some further details. There is no doubt that we must continue to evaluate how we can make the inspection system more efficient. For example we should introduce risk analysis tools, we should optimise the co-ordination between all the actors involved, and we should harmonise the accreditation of inspection bodies. These too could be elaborated on in our legislation.

On GMOs, a number of interesting elements have been raised today that add to the already wide debate. Last July, the Commission presented its recommendations on co-existence to the Member States, in which it stipulated that, because of the diversity of agriculture in Europe, it is more appropriate that rules on co-existence are formulated at national and/or regional level.

The Commission is now actively collecting approaches, and ideas, from the Member States in order to compare best practices at the European level.

The recent German and Danish proposals show that we are gaining ground here. In the meantime, several EU regions are developing methods to implement co-existence rules appropriate for their specific situation, based on the Commission recommendations.

Last month the Council recommended in its conclusions, that the action plan includes strategic objectives for the protection and enhancement of organic products vis-à-vis the adventitious presence of GMOs.

And next Wednesday, 28th January, I will be taking the conclusions of today's discussions into the Commission meeting, which is specifically dedicated to the issue of GMOs in a broader context. I have listened carefully to the many interventions defending the crucial importance of GMO thresholds for seeds, whether organic or not, to the future of organic farming, and next week we will decide the best way forward on this specific issue of the general GMO threshold in seeds. What is already clear to me is that operators need to be properly informed, by indications on the seed lots themselves, that the lots at hand could contain GMOs, regardless of whether they are present at levels above or below the thresholds.

Finally, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to conclude today by acknowledging your call for improving targeted research into organic farming. This issue would play a role in all three blocks of Actions: it is needed to better understand and enhance the development of the market, it is needed to evaluate the effects of policy intervention, and it will be necessary to underpin future standards. It is clear that organic farming needs to be supported by a suitable integrated European research and innovation system. A lot has been done already in this area and even more is on its way, but I will examine, with the Commission, what possible Actions we can propose to intensify research on all aspects of organic farming.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today we have made substantial progress in finding answers to some of the key questions and we will respond soon. In the meantime however, it is paramount that we explore, and exploit, the potential of the current measures in support of organic farming.

As to the European Action Plan I understand your impatience. This Hearing was one of the last steps in the process. We now need to reflect on how best to utilise all inputs from the consultation process to draft a realistic Action Plan with a high sense of purpose in it. And let's be clear, ladies and gentlemen, this Action Plan is just a step, in fact it is a very important step, but is not the end. I prefer to see it as a significant move forward in the continuous process of defining the best policies, monitoring the results, and generating a constructive dialogue with all stakeholders.

Thank you for your attention.

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