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European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development
For an ambitious and dynamic organic sector
Meeting of the Advisory Group on Organic Farming/Brussels
11 April 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for inviting me to take part in this extended advisory group; I am pleased to see that so many organisations attach considerable importance to the future of organic farming. Your contribution to the future of European policy on organic farming is essential. The sector is going through a decisive phase:
The challenge is to reconcile these two: to meet the demand without compromising on the intrinsic nature of organic products; to expand without disappointing citizens. The challenge is clear: ensure that organic is not a victim of its success.
Today will be devoted to asking you about the problems currently facing this European sector and discussing the objectives and options for the future; explaining the initial results of the public consultation on organic farming that was open to all citizens which was launched in January and concluded yesterday.
Over a 12-week period, we received more than 45 000 replies to the online questionnaire and nearly 1 600 contributions from citizens and associations with their ideas, proposals and opinions. A full analysis of these contributions will be made. At the moment, we have only made an initial, partial analysis.
A few trends have emerged from this initial summary: citizens support organic farming in order to protect the environment; they want to see organic farming move ahead of conventional farming in terms of sustainability; European citizens want a farm sector and food that does not use or contain GMOs or residues of pesticides or chemicals and they are increasingly interested in natural, local and seasonal products.
The sheer number of the replies received places the bar very high if we want to meet the expectations that have been expressed. In particular, we will have to make some very clear decisions and move on to a new stage in organic farming and its European framework, without changing for the sake of change, but for improving the legislation, making it more efficient, adapted to new realities, ensuring the long-term credibility of the sector.
Today, organic farming utilises over 5% of European farmland, and many young farmers setting up in business opt for organic farming. The land area given over to organic farming has more than doubled over the past ten years. During the same period, the global market has more than quadrupled and is now worth 44.6 billion euros. The mismatch between supply and demand in Europe is the main challenge facing the sector, which needs to step up a gear but without changing its intrinsic nature, since that is what has enabled the sector to expand and to attract more and more people to its products.
Demand currently outstrips supply: this is something many sectors of the economy would like to have in the present economic climate. But it is important to avoid disappointment and a mismatch between expectations and supply. It is consumers' confidence which carries the economic dynamic of the sector. We must encourage production without falling into the temptation of decreasing the standards, without reducing the level of ambition, without compromising the value of the sector. Demand is high because the standards are high. If the standards are decreasing, demand will decrease as well.
We must continue to work together in order to keep things moving forward.
Let us take an example: flexibility. Is there not a temptation to cut corners, to depart to some extent from what organic farming is all about? That strategy would help in the short term and be in the immediate interests of some operators, but it would not open up genuine long-term prospects for the sector. For my part, I believe it is important to build on trust, to continue to use the methods which have ensured the success of organic farming up until now, to harness the experience which has been gained and to go further, but without allowing the sector to lose its identity.
As you are well aware, the pressure of demand has also led to a few, totally unacceptable, frauds on the market, because of the added value generated by the sector and the fact that some unscrupulous operators were acting illegally for profit. However, some good has come out of the events of the last two years: the fraudulent activities have been detected. This means that the control system works. There has been whistle blowing on several occasions. But let us not forget that such activities throw the entire sector into disrepute, including farmers who have gone into organic farming in good faith and played by the rules. Let's not forget this choice for organic farming is done on a voluntary basis.
Over the next few months I shall be keeping a very close eye on the question of liability for organic farm products, checks and traceability methods. It is very important that we clamp down on all types of malpractice. We must protect the sector and its quality image.
Likewise for imported products. Transparency must be ensured. We have seen a considerable rise in the number of applications for equivalence and for the certification of control bodies. We have to consider how we can best make sure that boosting exchanges of organic products does not render them commonplace and lead to a drop in standards or mean that the checks are insufficient. There too, it will undoubtedly be necessary to clarify the responsibilities of each and every operator.
In many ways, organic farming is at the heart of what we think about our relationship with food and what we expect it to provide. On the subject of GMOs and chemicals used during or after production, citizens’ expectations are very high and the consultation seems to confirm this trend very clearly.
Questions such as the threshold of tolerance and authorisation of the use of certain substances such as vitamins will have to be considered very carefully. The fact is that organic farming increasingly concerns processed products. The challenge in taking account of this new reality is a considerable one, both economically and in terms of regulation.
When considering all of this, it is important to avoid two pitfalls:
We have a great deal of work to do if we wish to avoid these two pitfalls! It is therefore essential that we keep the channels of communication open. The bottom line is that this is about the place of organic farming in society and its ability to influence the entire food supply and marketing chains, even the conventional ones which are also improving.
For this reason, I would like to finish on an important point. Not only do we need to be creative in terms of policy and regulation, but organic farming must also remain innovative in technological terms: it will be fully represented in the European Innovation Partnership.
We are currently at a crossroads, facing decisions and important options for the future of the sector. Thank you for coming here today and for your ideas and your commitment now and over the months to come.
Let me assure you that I intend to be a hands-on part of this process, and that I will make every effort to maintain the link of trust with consumers and to expand the ‘organic brand’, while building on what you have achieved over the last 30 years, achievements of which you can be very proud: the foundations are solid! !