A healthy agroecosystem with a high degree of biodiversity is essential for a successful plant health care strategy. Conversion to organic farming entails a transformation of the entire agroecosystem and a minimisation of external inputs, such as synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. More than 90% of organic farmland does not need treatment with plant protection products; but they can be an essential element in speciality crops such as fruit, vine, vegetables and potatoes. Hence the need for a system with an ecological approach to consolidate the ecological transition.

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123rf Limited©alicjane. Fresh organic vegetables

Controlled use of pesticides

EU legislation defines the principles and practices of EU organic agriculture which every certified organic farmer needs to follow to obtain or keep their organic certification. The exclusive use of substances registered as suitable for organic production is among them. However, as opposed to some synthetic substances, the use of natural plant protection products often faces some hurdles during the registration process: many of them are not authorised or take years to receive the authorities’ approval.

The current authorisation of plant protection products system is non suitable for natural substances

In its leaflet Plant health care in organic farming. The role of natural substances in a biodiversity-based system approach, IFOAM Organics Europe highlights the main challenges facing natural plant protection substances.

A non-suitable authorisation system

One of the main technical, structural, and economical challenges surrounding the registration of these substances at EU level is a non-suitable authorisation of plant protection products system, which was originally designed for synthetic substances. Natural substances often have a complex composition and a wider range of modes of action, rather than synthetic ones. Therefore, it can be difficult to identify and characterize all the individual compounds of a botanical active substance. Despite the fact that these substances are already present in the natural environment, technical difficulties may arise in adapting the registration criteria and thus jeopardise their authorisation.

Once authorised under EU horizontal legislation, a substance must still be approved under the EU Organic Regulation for use in organic production. The request is submitted to the Commission who decides whether or not to include them in the regulation. At the same time, the independent Expert Group for Technical advice on Organic Production (EGTOP) assists the Commission by assessing the compliance of the substances and providing non-binding recommendations if a substance should be authorised or not. But this two-step approval process can take several years. For instance, «garlic extract has been added to the list of substances authorised for plant protection in organic agriculture in 2018, while it was authorised as active substance in the EU horizontal legislation for pesticides since 2009», IFOAM points out.

Public funding seams key to generate the necessary data to register substances of public interest

Lack of economic and academic support

Another problem highlighted by IFOAM is the lack of expertise on natural substances and organic farming in national and EU authorisation and risk management bodies, and detail: «Targeted hiring and training programmes at all levels are urgent to contribute to this kind of expertise». In turn, the registration of all these substances requires time and money. Therefore, public funding seams key to generate the necessary data to register substances of public interest that have a low cost-effectiveness, IFOAM says.

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123rf Limited©gillespaire. A French village refuses phytosanitary products and reports it at the entrance.

How to improve the system

Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies aim to increase organic land by 25% while reducing the use of chemical pesticides by 50% by 2030. These are ambitious goals, but they can be realised with self-criticism and the correction of key factors, such as plant health.

Is essential to improve the availability of natural substances according to the organic approach to plant health

In this regard, IFOAM offers some policy recommendations. The main one: make the organic approach to biodiversity the basis of all plant care strategies: «Healthy agroecosystems with a rich biodiversity are resilient and self-regulating to a large degree, making them a prerequisite for a successful plant health care strategy in organic farming. This is why the protection and increase of biodiversity must be the foundation for new approaches in plant health care. Improving the availability of natural substances should complete the system. It must be a public policy priority to preserve the fundamentals of the ecological approach to plant health and enable its widespread adoption», the organisation states out in its leaflet. This includes ensuring the full contribution of the CAP to the conversion of organic production, promoting organic plant breeding and fair access to the EU seed market, as well as promoting the use of less harmful pesticides and allocating resources to participatory research (national and European) and the authorisation of organic plant protection products.

To improve the availability of natural substances

On the other hand, IFOAM proposes to improve the availability of natural substances according to the organic approach to plant health. In this respect, a new category for natural substances in Regulation 1107/2009 must be created in order to accelerate approval processes and to expand expert knowledge both on both natural substances and on organic farming in all authorities. «Establishing natural substances as category will ensure only natural substances that are necessary and safe for farmers, consumers, and the environment will find their way into EU markets», IFOAM notes.

«The organic sector is ready to deliver», IFOAM Organics Europe declares and calls for a comprehensive and effective policy towards a green transition.

Author: Ariadna Coma, Journalist

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