Organic food and farming practices differ fundamentally from conventional ones because they rely on opposite environmental ethics. Despite their differences, both systems must find a way to effectively and responsibly coexist. The share of EU agricultural land under organic farming has steadily increased in the last decade, to reach 9.9% of the total agricultural area in the Union in 2021.

Organic and NGTs
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Echoing the growth of production, retail sales of organic products in the EU have also doubled since 2015. Under the Green Deal, the European Commission has set a target of ‘at least 25% of the EU’s agricultural land under organic farming by 2030’. Like it or not, both systems need to move forward hand-in-hand.

The political commitment in the Green Deal has not been translated into policies that guarantee a smooth coexistence between both systems, which comes at a cost to organic operators. The management of the adventitious presence of chemical pesticides in organic products is a blatant example of that inequity. The migration of phytosanitary products used in conventional farming into the organic food chain is well substantiated, and exits within a context where no progress has been recorded in the last years towards reducing pesticide use and risk level in the environment.

Like it or not, the organic and conventional food and farming systems need to move forward hand-in-hand

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) acknowledges that the most commonly found pesticides in organics are also contaminants present in the environment. Despite that evidence, the organic operator–who faces the challenges associated with producing food without pesticides and other chemicals–is not only tasked to put in place measures to prevent contamination with chemicals used in conventional farming, but also bears the burden of proof when such substances are found in the organic product. This results in multiple laboratory analyses and lengthy investigations, during which the entire organic production is put on hold. The burden and cost placed on the shoulders of the organic operator for substances he is actually not using represents a deviation from the polluter-pays-principle and has the perverse effect of discouraging growers from taking the path of non-chemical food and farming practices.

Against this background, OPTA Europe has greeted with scepticism the European Commission’s proposal on New Genomic Techniques (NGTs). Organic consumers–and quite probably some conventional ones–expect products to be produced without genetic engineering and will request such a guarantee from the food brands they choose. While the Commission proposal explicitly prohibits NGTs in organic production and includes an article requesting Member States to ‘take appropriate measures to avoid their unintended presence’, it is far from clear what it implies and who will assume the cost and burden of such measures.

Drawing lessons from the regrettable precedent of pesticides contamination, OPTA Europe wants to see the coexistence issue in NGTs regulation properly addressed

Drawing lessons from the unfortunate precedent of pesticides contamination, OPTA Europe requests to properly address the coexistence issue in the NGTs regulation by including legally binding traceability and labelling requirements for all NGTs along the supply chain until the final consumer, as well as a tax mechanism on NGTs to fund the precautionary measures to be taken in organics, the regular controls along the supply chain and a compensation to organic operators in case of unintentional presence.

‘Coexistence cannot be understood as unilateral damage control efforts by the organic sector’ said Aurora Abad, Secretary General of OPTA Europe. “An harmonious coexistence of both systems must be based on the basic principle that each one is free to choose and also accountable for the consequences of his choices”.

OPTA Europe is the membership organization representing the interest of EU organic processing and trade companies, as officially recognized by EU institutions. Its membership encompasses 12 EU Member States plus North America and Switzerland. Taken together, the companies represented by OPTA Europe account for a large share of total EU imports and exports, and processing of organic products.

Author: Aurora Abad, OPTA Association Manager

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Article Originally Published in NATEXPO 2023 Bio Eco Actual Special Edition