European Organic Congress 2021: What the organic sector can do for the European Green Deal
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by Ina Hiester
More than 660 participants from all over Europe and the world followed the second digital edition of the European Organic Congress 2021 (EOC) organised by IFOAM Organics Europe and Agrobio. At the Congress, participants discussed what the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the EU Organic Regulation mean for the organic sector and what organic farming can contribute to climate change mitigation, more sustainable food systems and rural development. IFOAM – Organics Europe has provided videos of the individual sessions, which we link under the respective paragraphs.
Is the CAP undermining the Green Deal?
There was consensus between all speakers about the relevance of the European Green Deal. However, severe doubts were expressed that the reform of the CAP will effectively support Europe’s ecological ambitions. The European "Farm to Fork" strategy, for example, is intended to help increase organically farmed land to a total of 25 percent by 2030.
Tassos Haniotis of the European Commission defended the course of the new CAP. He pointed out that the reform "will lead to more than we have today". However, Haniotis acknowledged that "it is not enough to achieve the Green Deal".
Jan Plagge, President of IFOAM Organics Europe, expressed concern about the large number of agribusiness representatives defending the status quo of the CAP. According to the current CAP, most subsidies go to mega-farms and agro-industry – instead of rewarding farmers for their efforts to protect the environment and climate. Plagge fears that organic farmers “may even lose income as a result” of the reform.
For Haniotis, withdrawing the CAP and restarting the discussions would be pointless. He argues that “the same people would deal with the same questions again” – without any guarantee for an eco-friendlier outcome.
Mitigating CO2 through farming
The panel discussion on climate mitigation and CO2-sequestration in agriculture brought about some rather humble conclusions. According to Shefali Sharma, Director at the European Office of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade policy’s (IATP), carbon markets have so far not proven to be the best incentive for farmers to change practices. This is because carbon prices remain volatile and benefit schemes are often unclear.
Thomas Legge, Land Use Director at the European Climate Foundation, and Pierre-Marie Aubert, Senior Researcher and Coordinator of the European Agriculture Initiative at IDDRI, raised concerns that agricultural measures in favour of our climate can sometimes be detrimental for biodiversity. Aubert further pointed out that sequestrating CO2 in soils is not a permanent solution and quickly reaches a saturation point. Therefore, the potential of this technique to fight the climate crisis should not be overestimated.
Both Legge and Aubert stressed that carbon sequestration in farming should not be used to merely offset other emissions. According to Kurt Sannen, Chair of Interest Group of Organic Farmers (IGOF) at IFOAM Organics Europe, comprehensive agroecology is the way to go – not a bare “fire-extinguisher-approach” that removes CO2 without tackling its release at the root.
More sustainable food systems in Europe
Various regulatory initiatives are supposed to support the EU’s Green Deal with its Farm to Fork Strategy. One of them is the EU Organic Action Plan. This plan consists of 23 actions to create and enhance the sustainable production and demand for organic products. According to Claude Gruffat, Member of the European Parliament for the Greens / EFA Group, the Plan will help shaping organic agriculture. As the agriculture of the future, it will “deliver healthy food at a fair price that pays out for the farmers”.
Nathalie Chaze from the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety at the European Commission, addressed the new legislative framework for sustainable food systems. This will be developed within the next two years. Apart from fostering sustainable public procurement, the framework is likely to bring about a new European sustainability label. Most people within the organic sector are weary about this concept. They see a risk of undermining already existing organic labelling schemes. The development of the framework is only in its very beginning. Yet, Chaze explicitly called for a proactive involvement of the organic sector in the participation process.
“The financial sector is an accelerator of the transformation of food systems.” Tobias Bandel
Tobias Bandel, Managing Director of Soil & More Impacts, presented an economically driven approach to foster environmentally friendly business practices. He invited the audience to rephrase the word “sustainability” as the “ability to sustain”. This emphasizes the economic consequences if businesses do not voluntarily improve their environmental impact. Bandel sees the “financial sector as an accelerator of the transformation of food systems”. Whereas governments and authorities are not quick enough to drive true change. In his opinion, demanding all businesses to disclose their carbon footprint would be a low hanging fruit to start with. This would create more transparency about the externalities of their business practices.
New EU organic regulation remains challenging
The revised EU Organic Regulation will enter into force on 1 January 2022. Marian Blom, Board Vice-President of IFOAM Organics Europe, presented some essential challenges that arise with regulatory changes. According to her, it will be difficult to understand the legislative implications after all adaptions. She understands the need to go into more detail for a level playing field for organic operators at the European level. But she also calls for sufficient leeway for local adjustments – without deviating from organic principles.
Michel Reynaud, Board member and sector representative for certification of IFOAM Organics Europe, commented on the challenges arising for organic controls and international trade. In view of the corona pandemic, he announced that concrete discussions on principal guidelines for remote organic inspections will most likely be taken up in 2022. Furthermore, he highlighted the remaining technical challenges that arise with each control body having their own IT-systems. This still hampers smooth data transfer into TRACES, the EU’s electronic certification system. Reynaud presented the changes for group certifications as an opportunity for small-scale farmers around the globe. Though, he acknowledged that the changes might result in further administrative burdens and costs for grower groups in developing countries.
Reviving rural areas
More than 80% of the EU area is considered rural, but only 30% of the European population lives here. Organic businesses are able to stimulate rural development. The continued growth of the organic sector can make a positive contribution here.
For example, a so-called "lighthouse farm" named Froidefontaine in Belgium, which was presented in a video. This is a model farm that specifically involves young people in farming, processing and education in rural areas.
Salvatore Basile, President of the International Network of Eco Regions, presented Biodistricts as a new business model for rural areas. In these districts, farmers, residents and local authorities develop the rural region together. He claimed that Biodistricts demonstrate a highly needed shift from sectoral to territorial thinking, as “people don’t life in sectors, but in places”. So far, there are 48 Biodistricts in the EU. According to Basile, new international guidelines for their creation and implementation will be published soon.