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Euranet Plus News Agency - EU negotiators are locked in talks on new organics rules almost two years after the draft legislation was tabled, getting bogged down by technicalities while the most controversial issue – pesticides – has yet to be tackled.

A June deadline to agree new EU rules for organics is looking more difficult to achieve as negotiators bicker over technicalities.

Two years after the European Commission published its draft regulation on the production and labelling of organics, the legislative process trundles on. The Dutch EU presidency wants to wrap up the file by the end of its term, but talks will need to speed up if that is to happen, according to the Commission.

The talks, which began last December, have been delayed by lengthy discussions on production rules for organics and on standards for imported products.

But the most controversial issue in the draft regulation is on pesticides, and it has yet to be tackled by the negotiators.
Who pays for pesticide contamination?

Organic farming limits the use of chemical and synthetic pesticides and forbids the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which means farms have to be policed to ensure they deserve the organic label.

But the big question is who should bear the consequences if organics are contaminated by pesticides from conventional farming?

In its March 2014 draft regulation, the Commission proposed to significantly lower limits on the use of pesticides on organic farms. If contamination occurs, it suggests governments compensate farmers for any losses they might suffer as a result of contamination, provided they have taken “all appropriate measures” to prevent it in the first place (article 20 of the Commission’s draft regulation).

The Council, which agreed on a position last June, wants to allow countries that have thresholds to maintain them until 2020.

But the Parliament’s agriculture committee, which agreed its position in a report last October, does not want to get into setting separate thresholds for pesticide use in organic products.

Instead, it focuses on precautionary measures, suggesting that products suspected of contamination should be thoroughly investigated and sold on only if it is established that the contamination was unavoidable.

They concede that maximum thresholds for non-authorised substances and farmers’ compensation could be included after 2020, on a proposal from the Commission.

German member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Greens, Martin Häusling , who is leading the European Parliament’s negotiations with the Commission and the Council on the draft, reiterated Parliament’s opposition to thresholds at a meeting of the agriculture committee on March 15. (audio in German)

“It’s a question of whether organic farmers, at the end of the day, are going to have to carry the burden of pesticides that their neighbours are using,” Häusling said.

“We don’t want that, so we need to enhance precautions. We don’t want pesticides in organic food, but whether it comes down to limit value or not – this is something that we have already settled in Council and in Parliament. Let’s not reopen that debate.”

Need for speed

The European Commission, for its part, is keen to speed up negotiations as the two-year anniversary of its proposal draws near. It is fearful that any more delays will hamper the growth of organic farming in Europe, which is expanding more quickly than the conventional market.

Organic land made up almost 6 percent of the EU’s total agricultural land in 2014 and there were over 257,000 organic farmers across the 28 member states, says the EU’s statistics agency, Eurostat.

And the EU market for organics is growing, with consumers spending over 22 billion euros on organics in 2014, according to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).

However, while the market for organic products has quadrupled in the last decade, organic land has only doubled in the same period, signaling that the existing EU laws on organics, dating back to 2007 and 2008, could be holding back progress.

Controls, imports and mixed farms

There have also been concerns over fraud, especially following an Italian scandal where 700,000 tonnes of food had been marketed as organic when it was not. The food, worth an estimated 300 million euros, found its way into other EU countries – including Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands – before it was seized.

To tackle this, the Commission’s proposal focuses on streamlining farm inspections, limiting controls to the riskiest operators, but the Parliament has insisted on maintaining annual on-site checks on all organic farms.

The Council has suggested allowing member states to choose less frequent checks every two years for low-risk farms, but the definition of what low-risk would mean is also contentious.

Another outstanding issue in the Commission’s draft is on standards for imports.

Despite accounting for almost a third of the world’s organic agricultural land and being the second-largest market for organic food, the EU still imports organic products, which MEPs say must comply with tough EU rules. They want older “equivalence” standards phased out within the next five years, while the Commission’s proposal still allows for some equivalence standards to apply.

And there are questions over whether mixed holdings – farms that produce both conventional and organic products – should continue to be allowed in the EU following the Commission’s proposal to outlaw them.

Negotiations will resume at a meeting on March 22.