Europe cultivates organic foods and organic farmers

Posted: 16 June 2004

The circle of stars EU logo is about to blossom on packages of organic fruits, vegetables, breads, meat, dairy products, and possibly, even on wine bottles, following the adoption by the European Commission of the European Action Plan for Organic Food and Farming. In the event, this has created 21 concrete policy measures to get more people to produce and eat organic foods.

More funding will flow to organic producers, a greater amount and variety of information about organic foods will reach the public to stimulate consumer awareness, and organic standards will be harmonised across Europe, the Commission said.

Buying 'Soil Association' certified organic bread
Buying 'Soil Association' certified organic bread
Buying 'Soil Association' certified organic bread, Bristol, England. Photo © Soil Association/C Sainsbury-Plaice
Commenting on the new plan, Franz Fischler, Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries said, "Promoting environmentally friendly, quality products is one major objective of the new, reformed Common Agricultural Policy. This is why we want to boost organic farming by stepping up information for consumers, strengthening the control system and improving research."

Organic demand

The action plan was crafted in response to a rapid increase in the number of farmers producing organically and to a strong demand from consumers during the last several years.

It is based on extensive consultations with Member States and interested parties including an online consultation in 2003, a hearing in January 2004, and meetings with Member States and stakeholder groups.

At the January hearing, Tony Sullivan, head of produce buying and organics at the 500 Sainsbury's supermarkets across the UK, said, "there is no legal basis for saying that organic foods are healthier, but 26 per cent of our customers believe organic food is better for them.

Sainsbury's has over 1,300 organic product lines and aims to provide a complete weekly organic shop, said Sullivan, from organic meat, produce and milk, to organic baby food, organic prepared meals, chocolate and wine.

Fresh local and seasonal vegetables on display at a farmers' market in Bristol, England. Photo: Soil Association/F Russell(2003)
Fresh local and seasonal vegetables on display at a farmers' market in Bristol, England. Photo: Soil Association/F Russell(2003)
Fresh local and seasonal vegetables on display at a farmers' market in Bristol, England.© Soil Association/F Russell(2003)
Organic foods currently hold a market share of about two per cent in the EU-15. The Commission says its analysis shows that more emphasis should be put on developing the market for organic foods.

Better information

In order to increase the two per cent figure or even to maintain it in the long run, more focus on consumer expectations is needed, the Commission believes.

Consumers need better information on the principles and objectives of organic farming as well as its positive impact on the environment.

The main proposals in the action plan concentrate on more information for both producers and shoppers, more transparency on different standards, more research, and greater availability of production, supply and demand statistics as policy and marketing tools.

The standards for organic agriculture will be completed by establishing the list of permitted additives and processing aids for processed animal products and improving the standards relating to animal welfare.

The Commission will consider whether to establish specific standards for organic wines, and also consider the need to extend the scope of organic standards to other areas such as aquaculture.

Standards relating to the environment such as the use of energy, the protection of biodiversity and landscapes may also be upgraded, the Commission said.

Internet database

Within the European Union, trade of organic products is hampered by the many different national and private standards and their implementation, which can make it very complicated to sell organic products from one EU member in other member states. "The developing of common objectives, development of a multilateral concept of equivalence, further harmonization of inspection requirements and more emphasis on the EU logo would help to minimize these problems," the Commission said in its action plan.

To address these problems, an Internet database listing the various private and national standards will be established, including international standards and national standards in main export markets.

On the financial side, there will be greater support for producer organisations in the organic fruit and vegetable sector, the Commission said, and the plan will develop incentives to encourage organic farmers to convert the whole instead of part of their farms to organic production.

Organic farmers will have the same possibilities for receiving investment support as non-organic farmers, said the European Commission, and producers will be encouraged to facilitate distribution and marketing by integrating the production chain through contractual arrangements.

"Government financial support for organic farming is justified by the environmental public good which organic farming delivers, which extend to society as a whole and not just to the minority of consumers who choose to purchase organic food," says the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in a parallel 21 point organics action plan released earlier this month.

Environmental benefit

DEFRA Secretary Margaret Beckett expressed satisfaction that "major retailers have committed themselves to working with the Organic Action Plan Group to ensure that our farmers can take advantage of the opportunities offered by rising consumer demand for organic food."

The European Commission plans to stimulate the demand side of the organic food equation by promoting the enhanced quality of organics, and the long term benefits of organic farming for the environment and nature protection.

But that will not be enough, said Sullivan of Sainsbury's "if we do not recognize and respond to the central need that organics is part of the modern era. It is now every bit about taste, convenience, value, inspiration and meal solutions as it is about growing systems and the environment."

"For organics to really grow to a new level," he said, "it must compete in the conventional market place for new customers who are not the committed organic consumer but who are instead a group with lifestyle needs around time and meal solutions, supported by the desire to be involved and benefiting from the principles of organic production."

"By delivering on both," said Sullivan, "we will build the market over the coming years. By only focusing on organic production alone we will achieve a small and static market place."

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