The EOC 2021 (European Organic Congress) is a key annual fixture for the European organic movement, an invigorating ‘ideas factory’ where the industry debates the biggest issues of the moment – and, crucially, engages policy makers on them.
EOC 2021: towards a more sustainable food system
With its overarching theme of ‘Organic’s contribution to the European Green Deal’, this year’s Congress focused on ways to ensure that organic is installed at the heart of Europe’s transition towards a more sustainable food system.
Although the three day event, organised by IFOAM Organics Europe, was a largely digital affair (with some physical sessions hosted by Agrobio in Lisbon, marking Portugal’s presidency of the Council of the EU), it produced a powerful sense of community. There was an added urgency about this year’s discussions too, and a sense that the organic movement must seize the moment.
We all need to take responsibility
After welcoming statements from IFOAM Organics Europe Director, Eduardo Cuoco, the organisation’s president, Jan Plagge, set the scene for the Congress, signalling the need for urgency: “Time is running short to tackle the enormous problems we face on climate catastrophe, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, water stress and social challenges.”
He said that many different concepts and approaches were being proposed as solutions – agroecology, carbon farming, regenerative farming and welfare-friendly farming, among them. If these terms were familiar to organic farmers and producers, he said, it was because many aspects of them were already embedded in organic approaches. “We have a solution, the time-tested organic systems approach”, Plagge explained. “In fact, if organic didn’t exist already, we would need to invent it to tackle the problems the world faces,” he added. But he insisted that the organic community had “to take responsibility to deliver, and to engage and discuss our concepts and solutions with all stakeholders”.
This year’s Congress focused on ways to ensure that organic is installed at the heart of Europe’s transition towards a more sustainable food system
Plagge said that the European Commission had “chosen to use that tool, that system”, and that that was “clearly stated” in the European Green Deal and flagship Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies – and backed up by the EU Organic Action Plan. The question of whether all Member States were fully signed up to the Commission’s ambitious target for organic was another matter, and a subject to which the Congress would return to.
Time for urgent discussions about organic
But first, we headed to Portugal to hear from Maria do Céu Antunes, Portugal’s Minister for Agriculture. She said that the pressing challenges that society faced meant that it was “urgent now to be discussing organic methods, and how we can support and promote this system to growers and producers”.
The minister said that new data from Portugal demonstrated the country’s commitment to organic, and showed that between December 2019 and March 2021 the extent of organic farmland in the country doubled as a result of rapid uptake of organic conversion incentives. She added that organic farming helped develop the “balance” in food and farming systems that was vital for true sustainability.
The new CAP and Green Deal – ambition and reality
The first session of the Congress – ‘The New CAP and European Green Deal: How far apart?’ – brought together a panel of big hitters to assess how well aligned EU Member States are with the bold objectives of the European Green Deal, in particular the target to reach 25% organic land by 2030.
It quickly became clear that ambition and reality were not necessarily the same thing. Some panellists warned that a “pushback” from conventional food and farming interests posed a significant threat to the EU’s 25% organic target.
While there were examples of good practice – Denmark and Sweden were cited –Jan Plagge said that a worrying picture was emerging in some countries where “it is clear some stakeholders want to keep the status quo (and are) applying pressure on national governments to create disadvantages to organic farmers’ income”. He cited France as an example, where organic groups recently warned that they are set to lose 66% of financial support under current CAP Strategic Plan proposals.
Other panellists also warned that organic groups were being shut out of the Strategic Plan process. Aina Calafat Rogers from the Spanish organic farming body SEAE (and Deputy Council Member of IFOAM Organics Europe) told the Congress that “the organic sector in Spain wasn’t involved in the consultation process on the design of the Spanish CAP Strategic Plan”. She said Spain was seeing similar issue to France, with a concerted “pushback here to keep the status quo”.
Celia Nyssens, Policy Officer for Agriculture at the European Environmental Bureau, said that targets were a useful “first step towards change” but if they remained as mere political ambitions they would be ineffective. She said the targets in the Farm to Fork strategy – including the 25% organic goal – should be made “binding and integrated into the future of the CAP and EU law”. She added: “The current proposal is funding business as usual, rather than climate and organic goals.”
“The organic sector in Spain wasn’t involved in the consultation process on the design of the Spanish CAP Strategic Plan”
But Tassos Haniotis, Director for Strategy, Simplification and Policy Analysis at DG AGRI, advised the organic sector not to become preoccupied with budgets and targets, and focus instead on “value added”. He said he remained confident that the EU would get very close to its 25% target, even if it didn’t quite meet it by 2030.
Jan Plagge concluded by saying that he wanted to see “a strong alliance between the European Commission, the organic sector and from the engaged people in the regions and in the member states, to take the measures for organic farming inside the Strategic Plans as an obligation.”
- Aina Calafat Rogers, Deputy Council member of IFOAM Organics Europe
- Celia Nyssens, Policy Officer for Agriculture at the European Environmental Bureau
- Eduardo Diniz, Director of the Office for Planning, Policy, and General Management of the Portuguese Agriculture Ministry
- Jan Plagge, President of IFOAM Organics Europe
- Maria Noichl, MEP Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats at the European Parliament
- Tassos Haniotis, Director for Strategy, Simplification and Policy Analysis in the Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development at the
Portugal’s bold organic ambitions
Portugal’s Agricultural Minister, Maria do Céu Antunes, had already hinted at the country’s growing organic ambitions in her introductory address. In the next session – ‘Organic farming in Portugal: The current situation’ – we heard in more detail about the evolution of organics in the country. Gonçalo Leal, Director of the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development summarised Portugal’s organic action plan and the 58 actions it contains, whilst confirming the rapid growth in organic conversations in the past year (organic farmers now number nearly 6,000, he said).
Declaring that “organic agriculture is a matter of health”, researcher Fátima Ferreira detailed the pioneering work she and her colleagues have done on creating a methodology to demonstrate that organic farming is a reliable indicator of public health. She said her system could be applied anywhere that organic is being practiced, and hoped it would strengthen the case further for pro-organic public policy.
“Organic agriculture is a matter of health”
Jaime Carvalho Ferreira, Chairman of Agrobio, said that it “was absolutely possible to get to 25% organic by 2030”. But he added that “we need courage, we need the right support and the right public policy”.
- Armindo Jacinto, Mayor of the City Hall of Idanha-a-Nova
- Fátima Ferreira, Maternal Health and Midwifery Nurse and Master’s Degree in Organic Agriculture
- Gonçalo Leal, Director of the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development
- Rui Flores, Agricultural Manager at Esporão, S.A.
- Rute Lima, President of the Parish Council of Olivais in Lisbon
- Moderator: Jaime Carvalho Ferreira, Chairman of the Board at AGROBIO
Respecting planetary boundaries – organic’s role in countering climate change
The global context in which organic exists is changing fast. And as climate change has moved to the top of the political agenda, agriculture is increasingly measured by its climate impacts.
How should the organic sector respond, and is ‘climate neutrality’ a realistic, or even, desirable goal. These were just some of the thorny questions tackled in the session ‘Climate mitigation and sequestration: What is the right level of ambition?’.
The session panel agreed there was a need to incentivise carbon sequestration in soils, and welcomed the European Commission’s ‘carbon farming’ initiative. But there were warnings not to rely on offsets, and questions about how useful carbon markets are in incentivising farmers to change their practices. Organic offered a farming system that was not only better for biodiversity, but made agriculture more resilient and better able to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Kurt Sannen, Chair of Interest Group of Organic Farmers (IGOF) at IFOAM Organics Europe, used an appropriate metaphor to make a powerful point. He said: “If we invest in fire extinguishers, we will keep on having fires. Organic and agroecological approaches will prevent ‘fires’.” He added that there was “a huge responsibility on all of us to stay within planetary boundaries”.
“There is a huge responsibility on all of us to stay within planetary boundaries”
Pierre-Marie Aubert, Senior Researcher and Coordinator of the European Agriculture Initiative at IDDRI, made the striking observation that a wholesale conversation to organic farming across the EU could reduce (agricultural) greenhouse gases by 45%. Christian Holzleitner, Head of Unit at DG Climate Action at the Commission, noted that carbon neutrality would require a “stronger and more sustainable ‘bio economy’ and the phasing out of fossil fuels”.
- Christian Holzleitner, Head of Unit for Land Use and Finance for Innovation at the Directorate-General for Climate Action at the European Commission
- Kurt Sannen, Chair of Interest Group of Organic Farmers (IGOF) at IFOAM Organics Europe
- Pierre-Marie Aubert, Senior Researcher and Coordinator of the European Agriculture Initiative at IDDRI
- Thomas Legge, Land Use Director at the European Climate Foundation
- Moderator: Eric Gall, Deputy Director and Policy Manager at IFOAM Organics Europe
Sustainable food systems – translating good intentions into good practice
The need to transition towards more sustainable food systems is now almost universally recognised. But a consensus on how to get there, still eludes us. The session ‘Towards more sustainable food systems’ explored what sustainable food systems would look like – and, crucially, how to get there.
While the organic sector has broadly welcomed the Farm to Fork strategy, panellists agreed that big questions remain over how “its good intentions can be translated into practice”. There were concerns too that the CAP, as it stands, does not reflect the European Green Deal objectives. A plan to introduce a new EU ‘sustainability label’ scheme was welcomed in principle but there were concerns that, by focusing on a product’s environmental footprint such a scheme might not recognise the wider benefits that organic offers (biodiversity and soil fertility, for example).
Two of the panellists homed in on the importance of applying ‘true cost accounting’ to food sustainability calculations. Dóra Drexler, Board Vice-President of IFOAM Organics Europe, said that “true cost accounting and taxation are essential to make organic more affordable, and to boost consumption”. Tobias Bandel, managing director of the consultancy Soil & More Impacts, added: “True cost accounting brings transparency to companies’ economic and ecological performance. In that way, sustainability becomes the ability to sustain”.
“True cost accounting and taxation are essential to make organic more affordable, and to boost consumption”
Faustine Bas-Defossez, External Impact Director at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, highlighted the need for “strong alignment between countries’ strategic plans and the EU Green Deal,” adding that “these are the most ambitious narratives within the EU today”. She warned that the “magnitude of challenge (in transitioning to sustainable systems) is huge, and failure is not an option”. Nathalie Chaze, Director for Food Sustainability and International relations at the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety at the European Commission, agreed. She said: “The transition to sustainable food systems will be disruptive but is absolutely necessary.”
- Claude Gruffat, MEP Greens / EFA Group at the European Parliament
- Dóra Drexler, Board Vice-President of IFOAM Organics Europe
- Faustine Bas-Defossez, External Impact Director at the Institute for European Environmental Policy
- Nathalie Chaze, Director for Food sustainability and International Relations at the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety at the European Commission
- Tobias Bandel, Managing Director of Soil & More Impacts
- Moderator: Silvia Schmidt, Food Policy Officer at IFOAM Organics Europe
The new Organic Regulation – balancing harmonisation and flexibility
The Congress turned its attention next to the new EU Organic Regulation, with all speakers on the session ‘Organic Regulation (EU) 2018/848: What will change?’ agreed that the twice-delayed legislation should come into force, as now planned, in January 2022.
The sprawling Regulation, which updates and replaces legislation now 30 years old, is complex and still not without areas of contention (important details are yet to be fully resolved). For the organic sector, the key issue now is ensuring a healthy balance between harmonisation and local adaption, and an accommodation of the fact that farming conditions and and traditions vary widely across the EU.
Elena Panichi, Head of the Organics Unit at the European Commission, acknowledged the complexity of the Regulation, but said it reflected “a complex sector”. She was confident that the new Regulation would be a facilitator for the 25% organic target, and help Europe’s €40 billion organic market grow further. But she also expressed “surprise” at some of the objections raised by the sector. She said: “I have seen letters of complaint talking about the need for derogations (exemptions) – but these would be derogations from fundamental principles”.
For the organic sector, the key issue now is ensuring a healthy balance between harmonisation and local adaption
Marian Blom, Board Vice-President of IFOAM Organics Europe, acknowledged that a level of complexity was understandable, but said there had to be “a limit to this uniformity”. She said it was important that the Regulation acknowledged and accommodated organic farming’s “system based thinking”. And she highlighted concerns about the treatment of pesticide residues in organic food (typically arising from spray drift from neighbouring conventional farms). She said that overburdensome rules in this area “could end up making producing organic food extremely difficult”. Michel Reynaud, Board member and sector representative for certification of IFOAM Organics Europe, agreed that the pesticides issue was a “very tricky point”. He said that creating workable tools to demonstrate compliance would be welcomed, but he warned against “overstating the issue of pesticide residues”.
- Elena Panichi, Head of the Organics Unit at the European Commission
- Marian Blom, Board Vice-President of IFOAM Organics Europe
- Michel Reynaud, Board member and sector representative for certification of IFOAM Organics Europe
- Moderator: Emanuele Busacca, Regulation Manager at IFOAM Organics Europe
An organic vision for the future of rural areas
The healthy functioning of rural areas is vital for food security, environmental protection and sustainable employment. So, what should Europe’s long-term vision be for rural areas look like? This was the question that panellists in the session ‘Rural development: Long-term vision for rural areas’ were tasked with answering.
Salvatore Basile, President of the International Network of Eco Regions, gave an inspiring update on the growing trend for ‘bio-districts’. This is where local districts or regions have created informal agreements for local food production based on organic principles. There are now 48 such districts operating around Europe, said Basile. Collectively they were now a force for revitalising rural economies and communities. Luis Saldanha, Chairman of the Board at National Young Farmers Confederation, agreed that bio-districts had a potentially major role to play in developing sustainable agriculture. Importantly, he said, they reflected the need to think “not just about production, but about territories … that are “often far from homogeneous”.
Doris Letina, Vice-President at European Council of Young Farmers set out seven “areas for action” for the development of rural areas, including education, lowering barriers to entry (encouraging young people into farming), social inclusivity, financial support and training. She also reminded Congress of a sometimes underestimated stakeholder in discussions about rural development: “It is the consumer who will tell you what kind of agriculture she wants”.
- Alexis de Liedekerke, Founder of Froidefontaine Farm
- Doris Letina, Vice-President at European Council of Young Farmers
- Luis Saldanha, Chairman of the Board at National Young Farmers Confederation (CNJ)
- Salvatore Basile, President of the International Network of Eco Regions
- Silvia Michelini, Director for Rural Development at the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development at the European CommissioN
- Moderator: Eva Berckmans, Communications Manager at IFOAM Organics Europe
“You are the pioneers, the leaders of sustainable agriculture”
The final words at this year’s stimulating, purposeful — and frequently candid — European Organic Congress came from Janusz Wojciechowski, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development at the European Commission, who joined the discussion from Brussels.
“Organic farmers are the pioneers, and the leaders in this field”
The Commissioner gave his assurance that the “necessary tools and incentives” to get to the 25% organic target would be provided. He said that the Commission had “asked Member States for a comprehensive, fully consistent set of interventions in support of organic production”. And he acknowledged that a “one size fits all approach will not work (for organic)”.
Commissioner Wojciechowski emphasised that organic would play a vital role in the transition to sustainable agriculture, an area in which the EU was “driving the global agenda”. Sending the sector a final, clear signal of support, he said: “Organic farmers are the pioneers, and the leaders in this field – and you should continue to lead the way.”
Author: Jim Manson, Journalist
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