Climate change is gathering pace and the planet is running out of time. Now is the time to develop and implement more sustainable models. The future is organic, and we must start building it now. It was under this premise that the new edition of OFC 2021 (Organic Food Conference) took place, where organic food processors, retailers, traders, importers and control bodies exchanged views and proposals on the sector, online and live from Warsaw, Poland.

OFC 2021
Eduardo Cuoco, IFOAM Organics Europe Director, and Ryszard Kamiński, Undersecretary of State of Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. OFC 2021

OFC 2021: discussing the future of organic

In its 6th edition, Warsaw hosted the biannual online and live Organic Food Conference 2021 (formerly Organic Processing Conference), focusing on “The Future of Organic Food”. Organized by IFOAM Organics Europe in collaboration with the Polish Chamber of Organic Food, the OFC gathered a large audience – more than 150 unique participants, mostly from organic food businesses, tuned in on both days –online & in person- to share thoughts and discuss the current situation of the EU organic sector, taking EU policy strategies, data and the potential of consumers as key players in the development of the sector as starting points for discussions.

“EU Green Deal, Farm to Fork and Organic Action Plan have a common goal: developing organic farming in Europe”. Ryszard Kamiński, Undersecretary of State Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, welcomed the congress with this statement and encouraged the process of organic conversion that Poland, the host country of this edition, is undergoing: “We are including more organic farming systems formation in our agriculture schools so farmers have more knowledge about organic farming. Poland will continue developing its organic sector in the comming years with a veriety of mesures”.

The organic market continues to grow

Organic land is diversifying, local production is getting more important and organic market sales are experiencing a steady growth. The positive impact of the pandemic on the organic sector has been demonstrated. According to FiBL‘s The World of Organic Agriculture 2021, the organic market increased 8% to €45 billion in 2019 and it will continue to grow. Even though the positive feedback from the trends in market, further growth is needed to reach the EU targets. “These are promising numbers, but the organic area will have to continue to grow in coming years to reach 25% organic land by 2030”, said Dr Helga Willer, Deputy Head of Department of Extension, Training & Communication at Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL.

EU regulation can support the organic market development, but stakeholders collaboration is needed

Packed with up-to-date data on the European organic sector, the session carefully illustrated the current organic market situation, and also raised the major weaknesses and challenges ahead. One of them: EU regulation can support the development of the organic market, but stakeholder collaboration is needed. For example, with greater collectivization of data capable of illustrating the organic sector more accurately.

On which organic data could be improved, Helga Willer claimed: “We don’t have enough production data, and retail sales data is still missing for a lot of countries. And for EU we don’t have data on intra EU trade and on EU export sales. There is a huge gap“.

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Marian Blom, Board Vice President, IFOAM Organics Europe, and Dr. Helga Willer, Deputy Head of Department of Extension, Training & Communication at Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL. OFC 2021

Poland is on the right track

Poland is one of many examples of the green development being experienced in the EU. President of Polish Chamber of Organic Food, Krystyna Radkowska, gave very concrete and interesting data on trends in the Polish organic market, live from Warsaw. With a 10% increase in organic area over last year and a rapid growth in e-commerce, the organic market is undergoing optimistic changes in Poland. Organic consumption is increasing especially in large cities, mostly for health, GMO & pesticide free and environmental reasons. However, Radkowska pointed out, there is still a long way to go to reach the goal of the national green action plan. The main challenges? Strenghtening consumer awareness, rising production costs and elimination of artificial packaging.

Radkowska declared herself a dreamer: “In maybe 10-20 years organic food will be very popular, the most wanted food. Hopefully the only one”. But at the same time she made a strong claim: “Our planet is running out of time. But it will definitely take a lot of time (to achieve organic conversion) without the help of governments, EU, donations, grants… It is very important that we’ll be able to stop climate change”.

Road to 25% organic land

To increase organic land to 25% by 2030. This ambitious target is set, but how are we working to reach it? The OFC 2021’s second session explored how both organic and conventional businesses are working to achieve the ambitious goal of the Farm to Fork project in Organic as part of the solution to the objectives of the European Green Deal: How to reach the 25% target?’. 

Barbara Altman, Head of Strategic Securing of Raw Materials Rapunzel Naturkost, highlighted the relevance of the collaboration between actors to stimulate organic production: “Networking is key for our vision for the future of organic food and the market. IFOAM Organics Europe’s work is important as it brings large and small players together. Infrastructure to process organic food is crucial. In large regions specialised infrastructure for organic is sometimes lacking. Private initiatives and local institutions can support this. The EU’s role is to make the right rules and we have to find good initiatives and foster them. Then things can go ahead and it will help us reach the target of 25% organic land”. 

Clear visibility and extensive communication about organic products also seems to be crucial to boost the organic production in the EU, pannelists agreed. “To achieve 25% organic land target, we believe we need concrete, time-bound actions for the organic market and economic support focusing on marketing and demand support”, Chiara Faenza, Responsible for Sustainability & Values Innovation Coop Italia brought into the debate.

“Farmers need the right knowledge to be able to provide organic food. The market is still small but we are confident we can play our part in reaching the 25% organic land target”,  Sylwester Struzyna, BioPlanet SA CEO & PIZE’s Vice-CEO. “Cooperation between farmers and consumers is key. In Poland we have Chamber of Organic Food to help communication between the two”, he added. 

“Organic is not a niche market anymore. It’s part of the solution”

“Organic is not a niche market anymore. It’s part of the solution and the EU Commission recognised this in its EU Green Deal”, IFOAM Organics Europe Deputy Director and Policy Manager Eric Gall pointed out during the session. “It’s important to note that companies also can and should advocate national government to call for sufficient CAP support and other public policies to support development of Organic Farming”, he remarked.

Nutrition & sustainability labels: allies to stimulate organic consumption

Is the current product labelling system adequate, does it provide clear and real information about the nutritional value and environmental impact of the products we consume, and what alternatives can be integrated to facilitate consumers’ conscious decision making? These questions were addressed in the third session of the congress ‘Sustainability and nutrition labelling initiatives: how does organic fit?’

“Both, Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) and NutriScore have shortcomings: NutriScore does not per se reflect naturalness of products, while PEF does not consider impacts on biodiversity, animal welfare or other externalities”, Silvia Schmidt, IFOAM Organics Europ Policy Associate Manager and moderator of the session, planted the seed of the debate with a brief but interesting portrait of the current situation of the organic labelling system. Hans Kaufmann, Head of Communications of BNN, presented the results of the campaign the company developed to show consumers the meaning of the NutriScore label and its disadvantages: “NutriScore puts organic food at a disadvantage. Our aim was to inform consumers how to use this label. We designed several materials, including information flyers, posters, social media sharepics and successfully showed comparison between products and raised awareness among consumers of NutriScore’s meaning”.

OFC 2021
Silvia Schmidt, Hans F. Kaufman and Anne-Claire Asselin at Organic Food Conference 2021.

Founder of Sayari and Environment & Biodiversity Expert, Anne-Claire Asselin, presented the new labelling proposal that the organic sector is developing in France, the Planet Score, to show much more detailed information about the real environmental impact of products. The new proposal maintains the NutriScore labelling but adds relevant and comprehensive information to the labelling schemes: the use of pesticides in the production process, its impact on biodiversity and its impact on climate, as well as adding information on animal welfare. Planet Score is currently being analysed by the French government, but according to Asselin, its potential could lead to the labelling system being implemented at the European level in the coming years. The interest of international organic companies, the support of NGOs and the interest of the European Commission in the French sustainable labelling scheme are key to this, Asselin concluded.

“Consumers play an important role in transitioning towards sustainable food systems. Their demands and questions can steer the development of labels

Both speakers agreed on the key role of consumers in the evolution and implementation of more informative labelling on organic products, with the aim of showing their advantages over conventional products. Anne-Claire Asselin, said: “Consumers play an important role in transitioning towards sustainable food systems, as their demands and questions can steer the development of labels”. Hans Kaufman noted: “A proliferation of labels is not the solution to transitioning towards sustainable food systems. We need to raise consumer awareness of labels, organic’s benefits. More education on consumption is necessary. People have to be aware of what is behind consumption”.

New Organic Regulation: What to look out for on the 1st of January 2022

The new EU organic regulation will come into force on January 1, 2022, which will mean changes in the processing and marketing system between Member States. The European Commission has almost finished the legislation on production rules and controls. However, work on international trade and exports is “still ongoing”, according to Laurence Bonafos, DG AGRI, European Commission.

The second day of the OFC started precisely with a discussion on the opportunities and challenges for stakeholders in the sector following the implementation of the new regulation. Pannelists agreed that major changes for organic producers, processors & traders can be expected in new organic regulation, but changes for organic processors will be manageable. From 2024, organic producers are obliged to use organic cleaning and desinfection products, which is coherent with environmental and EU Green Deal targets but poses implementation challenges at the same time. For Alexander Beck, Interest Group of Organic Processors and Traders, IFOAM Organics Europe/AöL, a major challenge for organic processors might be “the increased cost for natural flavours and harmonized implementation across processors due to difficulties in controls”. In which, “clearer description of organic operator’s responsibilities and precautionary measures will contribute to improved quality insurance and overall implementation of new organic production rules”, Beck empazhised.

“Group certification could be an opportunity to boost organic agriculture”

Changes in control system “will allow for dedicating more time to high-risk operators, but harmonizing the classification of low-risk operators will be a challenge”, highlighted Michel Reynaud, Board Member at IFOAM Organics Europe and Vice-President Group Ecocert. And pointed out the group certification as a big chance: “Even though sampling and analysis costs may be dissuasive, group certification could be an opportunity in the EU to boost organic agriculture”. 

Plastic-free packaging and organic

The new EU Organic Regulation foresees little requirements in terms of materials used for packaging organic products, but covering organic food in plastic does not feel to be in line with organic principles, especially that of ecology and environmental health. “Organic sector needs to consider packaging because consumers expect it, but ultimately because it’s the right thing to do to ensure holistic organic production”, said Chair of Interest Group of Organic Processors and Traders IFOAM Organics Europe/Soil Association, Sarah Compson.

Examples were provided by Valentina Pizzi, Marketing and CFO of Pizzi Osvaldo, and Steven Ijzerman of EkoPlaza, two business models that managed to leave plastic packaging behind and replace it with new recyclable and sustainable materials, thanks to research: “Recycling is a good starting point, but not the solution due to the leakage of plastic into the environment, therefore becoming plastic free is the way forward. To do this, we need to innovate,” said Ijzerman.

“Organic sector needs to consider packaging because consumers expect it but ultimately because it’s the right thing to do to ensure holistic organic production”

Innovation plays a role in the search for new environmentally friendly packaging and several projects are underway to both minimize the product’s environmental footprint and meeting the consumer’s demands. Johanna Stumpner, Interest Group of Organic Processors and Traders, IFOAM Organics Europe /AöL presented ‘Biokunststofftool‘, a tool to check and compare bio-based packaging, now avaiable in Germany and the UK.

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Pannelist at ‘Sustainability and nutrition labelling initiatives: how does organic fit?’ online at OFC 2021.

Sustainability, companies and consumers

Roberto Pinton, Board Member of IFOAM Organics Europe and ProOrg project developer: “It’s the best way to comply to regulations and be a more responsible company, fulfilling the consumers’ needs and legislation. Consumers consider many aspects (taste, packaging) from organic products and want more processing information, even when they don’t necessarily understand it. Regulation is not asking for special details in the label. Its not compulsory but recommended to provide consumers the information they are wanting for to help them buy more organic products. Organic needs to become stronger every day and every tool needed is welcomed”.  

“It’s the best way to comply to regulations and be a more responsible company, fulfilling the consumers’ needs and legislation”

“We need big industry players to take part in the sustainable process and be more risk taking so as to enhance the upcycling industry and understand consumers’ needs and wishes. There’s huge potential here, but it’s really a matter of the full industry and research”, said Karin Beukel, Circular Food Technology Co-Founder.

The need of a holistic approach

After two intense days of the OFC 2021, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Janusz Wojciechowski, closed the congress with an encouraging message: The full potential of Organic Farming lies not only in its environmental benefits, but also in its ability of bringing real benefits to Organic Farmers and society. Now it’s time for all of us to take action on the Organic Action Plan. I look forward to work with you in this goal”.

Janusz Wojciechowski, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development
Janusz Wojciechowski, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, at OFC 2021.

Jan Plagge, President, IFOAM Organics Europe concluded: “We’re ready to be part of the solutions and actions in transitioning towards sustainable food and farming systems. The main challenge is to convert not only farmers and processors, but how to change consumption and cooking habits of consumers. We need a holistic approach of converting the whole value chain, including consumers”. 

Author: Ariadna Coma, Journalist.

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