Crops farm farming

Organic food producers will have to commit to only farming organic crops under new European Commission proposals

Farmers who want to produce organic food will have to turn their backs on any conventional farming they do and go 100% organic, under new rules proposed by the European Commission this week.

Mixed farms, where organic and conventional production sits side by side, risked undermining consumer confidence in the organic sector, the EC said.

It published new legislative proposals for the EU organic sector on Tuesday (25 March), which it said would harmonise and tighten organic standards across the 28 EU member states.

The new rules include a requirement for organic farmers to cease any conventional farming so as to reduce the risk of non-compliance with organic rules and cross-contamination with non-organic materials. Current EU rules already state organic farms should be 100% organic, but there are derogations in place that allow mixed farming to take place in practice.

“The organic legislation has been aiming at reaching the principle of 100% organic for some 20 years now, so it’s now time to put an end to exceptions, derogations and exemptions, if the sector wants to remain credible and retain consumers’ confidence,” a spokesman said. “That’s what the proposals are about.”

If the EC’s proposals are adopted, there will be “appropriate conversion periods” to phase out mixed farms in different sectors, for example six months for pork, 12 months for cattle and two years for arable crops and pastures.

Draft EU documents leaked to German magazine Der Spiegel flagged up the prospect of a new 100% organic rule earlier this year, and the official proposals published this week confirm the EC indeed wants to press ahead with ending mixed organic/conventional farms.

The Soil Association’s most recent report on the UK organic market warned organic farmer numbers were falling and organic consumers may have to rely increasingly on imports in the future.

Its head of standards, Chris Atkinson, warned phasing out mixed farms was not necessary in the UK. “The regulatory system for organic farming in the UK is already extremely robust, so the proposed change to 100% organic systems is unnecessary here. Around 15% of organic farmers currently operate separate organic and conventional farm units, but the sizes of organic farms in the EU tends to be smaller than in the UK – making it harder to run separate systems – so this might explain the intentions behind the proposal.”

Tom Lander, food chain adviser at the National Farmers’ Union, said making farmers go 100% organic could force producers out of the sector and discourage new entrants. ”A pragmatic attitude needs to be reached in how higher standards of production are achieved whilst ensuring the sector has a sufficient supply base to support demand.”

Atkinson also stressed the EC’s proposals were “work in progress” and were therefore likely to change before the rules were finalised. They will then need to be approved by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

Other proposals

Under its new proposals, the EC is also looking to clamp down on pesticide use in the organic sector and tighten up the rules on organic feed to ensure livestock is fed only on organic material. At present, some sectors are allowed to use up to 5% non-organic feed.

Lander at the NFU stressed it was important the EC took a pragmatic approach when setting new standards. “The UK organic industry is supportive of the need to uphold the quality and integrity of the organic brand. However, some particular issues are complex, for example, getting the right quality nutrition for monogastric animals such as pigs and poultry of which there is a 5% non-organic feed derogation. Taking this as just one example, the Commission and Parliament need to maintain a level of pragmatism in their approach.

“Furthermore, access to a larger market would need to take into consideration fair and equitable trade between all countries involved, in particular ensuring a consistent and uniform set of standards which are met by all parties.”

Atkinson at the Soil Association said it was good the proposals were now in the public domain but stressed questions still needed to be answered. “We are pleased that the European Commission has acknowledged that organic is mainstream and there is a need to ensure that high levels of consumer confidence are maintained in the rapidly growing EU market. Whilst we support the aspirations and intentions to grow the EU producer base, further analysis and consultation is needed to be sure that the proposal, alongside CAP reform and the Organic Action Plan, can actually deliver these.”

“The final proposal could still take 18-24 months to be finalised and we will be working hard to make sure what is agreed will be of real benefit to farmers and processors, as well as consulting with our own licensees about the aspects that matter to them.”