Ministers discuss the labelling of organic products

On December 12, the AGRIFISH Council held a discussion on the proposal on organic production and labelling of organic products

By Sophie Bolla

14 Dec 2016

Gabriela Matečná, Minister for agriculture and rural development of Slovakia and president of the Council, said that the Presidency summarised the result of its work in the progress report that was shared with delegations. This document describes the negotiations with the European Parliament. After finding a solution on the structure of the Regulation, the Presidency together with the Commission developed a package of compromises before the last trilogue on 4 political issues related to:

  • Greenhouses
  • Derogations
  • Collection of data
  • Extermination of weeds and plant protection products

However, it was not easy to reach consensus on this package between the three institutions as their views are widely different. The Presidency thought it was a very balanced proposal. In the SAC, she noted, it turned out that that even Member States were not capable of finding an agreement on some points between them. The Presidency therefore did not receive a mandate to negotiate with the European Parliament for the last trilogue which took place on December 7. Although, all three institutions made great progress in the last few weeks, more time will be needed to find an agreement. During the last trilogue, they reached a consensus on one thing, she noted. She concluded saying that she was convinced that there is no one who would disagree with the opinion that this sector of organic agriculture has a very good future. We should now think about how the EU legislation can help organic farmers and how to increase the trust of consumers. The Slovak Presidency has always tried to reach a final agreement and would be very glad to have this finalised. Let’s think about which rules and legislative provisions should be enacted to improve the area of the organic farming. She thanked the preceding Presidencies and the delegations for their work on this file.

Phil Hogan, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, agreed that this is an issue that has been talked about for quite some time now. He acknowledged that both the Commission and the Slovak Presidency had the ambition to close this file before the end of the year but they are not in the position to do so at this time. However there has been a huge amount of work on this file.

The progress made to date is important because the revised proposal brings added value to the sector. This needs to be seen by reference to the status quo. It brings improvements especially with regards to simplification and harmonisation. The current compromise foresees an end of the systems of national derogations at the EU level and moves away from the a la carte approach. Harmonisation of the sector was one of the key goals of the proposal. This has improved in the latest compromise by improving the level playing field between EU and third country operators that ensures fair competition by improving the trade regime. He noted that right now substances may be authorised in one country and not in another. The compromise also improves the situation for small scale farmers by benefitting from group certification. It also improves drafting, it streamlines the terminology and reduces the administrative burdens. There are compromises on 40 out of the 45 articles and all the annexes. This is significant, he said.

He stressed that the Commission has shown considerable flexibility on controls, mixed farms, on animal welfare, on imports, greenhouses, extension of the scope of the Regulation, empowerment of the Commission, conversion and in-conversion products. He said that all institutions, to find a compromise, need to move away from their original position.

This issue on how to deal with the presence of pesticides in organic products is a difficulty issue, the Commission has moved a lot from its original proposal. What is on the table now is a proposal of an automatic declassification only for products containing pesticides residues. The Commission holds the position that organic products containing residues of more than two pesticides cannot be sold as organic. This is what consumers expect when buying an organic product and consumer confidence is critical for the sector. He added that it is unlikely that the presence of three pesticides or more is due to contamination. Organics is about production methods but it is only part of the story. The consumer has very high expectations in the product for which he or she is paying a premium price.

He concluded that he does not accept people who say that this is a dead end and that the three institutions are suspending negotiations until further notice. He remains confident that solutions can be found to satisfy all institutions. The progress made to date is a step forward from the status quo. A satisfactory outcome remains within reach and the Commission is ready to work to assist the Council to conclude this important file in late 2016 or early 2017.

The representative of Austria said he was going to be less optimistic than the Commissioner, noting that this does not have much of a future. It has been going on for three years and it is getting worse and worse. At the end of the day, nobody is very clear about this Regulation. A lot of people have left the sector because of the uncertainty. He did not say that there has been no progress at all and he noted that all the Presidencies deserve a compliment. However, the overall position agreed upon by the Council in June 2015 is the only basis on which they can work. Anything else is doomed to fail. He explained that in Austria they have organic farming since the 1970s and they supported it even since then. Austria knows what it is talking about and it has always shown flexibility but there are red lines that cannot be crossed in this context. One of them are the thresholds values for banned substances. That would suggest that organic products can contain plant protection products and that is not the idea. He also mentioned the issue of the use of many delegated acts. Austria cannot endorse what is on the table. He heard that the proposal could be withdrawn and he thinks this is the most sensible outcome. Austria is still prepared to work on an outcome but it has to be on the basis on the common position and thresholds for pesticides are not a part of the original concept.

The representative of Denmark thanked the presidency for their effort. The recent negotiations have however shown that there still elements where it is difficult to reach a balanced compromise. When it comes to the presence of non-authorised products or substances, Denmark finds it important that a producer is only responsible for its own production. Therefore, he cannot accept the introduction of any kind of new thresholds as the Commission proposed. This is in line with European Parliament and the majority of the Council. He then added that on controls, Denmark’s decision is to maintain the mandatory annual physical inspection. On certification in the retail sector, he said that it should be left for the member States to decide whether they want to exempt operators sending products directly to consumers from the control system. The retail sector has no cross-border activity, he noted. He then said that the EU should aim at a fair model for imports where a strict compliance approach is not the right solution as it would have negative implications for developing countries and the EU internal market. Better solutions on some technical issues are also needed such as on the question on greenhouse production. The introduction of maximum limits on production units is not something Denmark supports, he said, noting that the organic poultry sector in Denmark demonstrates that it is possible to have high animal welfare standards. There are clearly elements where a better compromise is needed.

The representative of Sweden thanked the Presidency for the commitment it has shown in these negotiations. The proposal has been discussed for a number of years but there are still a number of topics on which the Council does not know where it stands. He recalled that the Council General Approach was a difficult compromise to find and on important issues there was a lack of consensus between the institutions. He said he will support a compromise if it takes into account the need of the sector and gives it better conditions. Many changes of the current rules can lead to a situation where farmers decide not to bother anymore with organic farming. Therefore, the majority of the exemption should remain notably on the use for non-organic reproductive material. He added that all Member States should be given the opportunity to produce organically in greenhouses. The issue of trade and imports is important, developing countries’ interest should be taken into account. Finally, he said that on threshold values for non-authorised products, he sees no value or need to introduce thresholds for pesticides residues. Thresholds would involve a disproportionate burden for the organic sector and would shift the focus from processed to product. He supported harmonised approach to handling non-authorised substances when they are present. It would be a good thing for Member States to use the same criteria. He said he is ready to find a compromise but it is important for him that the new body of rules would involve improvement and simplification. 

The representative of Malta said that it is a true shame that after months of work there is no conclusions. Therefore, at this juncture, decisions ought to be taken for the sector and for the benefit of farmers. It is advisable to have a pause for reflexion in order to think about how best to take action. Malta feels prepared to work on this file. However, he believed that moving forward is only possible through feasible proposals.

The representative of Germany was grateful for the Presidency for a lot of work. However, the delegations have not come to a conclusion. There is no result and it is unfortunately becoming a problem because it has been going on for too long. Farmers need a plan and certainty. He mentioned the question of residues saying that there is a lot of concerns around that. He said Germany would be prepared to reaffirm its position that it held under the Dutch Presidency. He argued that a slimmer version of the proposal is needed to build on the Regulation we had because not everything was wrong with it. There is a need for action on the issue of controls for imports and compatibility of standards. On the thresholds, his concern is that if this is a make or break topic, the overall objective of improving organic markets will be undermined. He added that in the conventional farming sector, a lot of products are free of residues. If this is the only distinctive feature, then the whole organic process is being left out. It is not only about pesticides. He said that the EU needs a reliable system and consumers need to be confident that something which is labelled organic will respect some standards. A range of measures have been proposed which are justified but the discussion seems to reach a point where there are two options: either we slim this down the proposals or we face the fact that we may not be able to conclude on this file, he said. He noted that Germany is still prepared to discuss areas which would need changes but it needs to be substantial changes. We cannot spend another two years only to come up with no results, he argued. That is why he supported the idea of a pause, a thinking period. Of course, he added, Germany would be prepared over the Christmas break to put further work into the proposal. We have to be honest if we conclude that we simply are not going to find an agreement, he concluded.

The representative of Belgium stressed the efforts made by the Slovak Presidency and the Commission. Nevertheless, Belgium considers that the text is not going in the right direction. On unauthorised substances, Belgium attaches importance to thresholds and automatic declassification when those thresholds are exceeded. The EU should not undermine consumers’ confidence in the nature of organic products. On the link to the soil, Belgium attaches importance to soil-bound cultivation and as such cannot accept that organic production could be carried out outside soil. On the databases, Belgium is against it on the availability of existing organic livestock as it thinks that it will create unnecessary burdens. He added that when it comes to seed, Belgium prefers the Commission’s proposal on the basis of existing guidelines to draft rules. He also talked about the conversion of mixed farms, maintaining annual controls, not being able to delegate to a control authority the notification mad by operators. Still a lot of outstanding issue so he cannot be in agreement with a lot of text agreed on during the trilogues. Until there is an agreement on the whole text, he said, there can be no agreement on anything. Belgium thinks that the time is not right to adopt this file. The Council has to think about where they stand.

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