November 15, 2017
Guest blog post by Blanche Magarinos-Rey, Attorney at the Paris Bar
Legislative discussions around the new regulation on organic farming have been going on for almost two and a half years. A record in the history of the European Union. The 18th and very long trilogue of 28 June 2017 ended the negotiations between the European institutions, in a context of profound divergences of views between Member States on different aspects of the reform. On 17 July, the EU Council should have approved, by a definitive final vote, the bitterly negotiated text, but, once again, none of this happened. Despite the very clear progress carried by the text on many topics, the German federation BÖLW, led by Bioland and Naturland directors and opposed to any reform project since the very first days of the legislative process, has pressured the German government, leading the latter, in a delicate context of legislative elections, in an abstention position within the Council. As this abstention of Germany threatens the formation of a majority, the Presidency of the Council decided to postpone the vote to next 20 November. Given the current political context in Germany, it is very likely that Germany will confirm its abstention or even its opposition to the text. By doing so, the German federation, driven paradoxically by the Green party, puts the whole European organic sector in danger and at the same time sacrifices the European project. Indeed, the failure of a whole legislative project, laboriously constructed over so many years, provides fertile ground for the most virulent anti-Europe populisms.
Thus, these are grave times and we have to be very realistic. The rejection of the compromise would have particularly damaging consequences. On the one hand, it would lead the sector to have to apply, for another 10 to 15 years, the very imperfect current regulation, because it is politically inconceivable that the Commission will make new legislative proposals in the near future. On the other hand, progress brought by the text would be lost, and for probably very long, because some of them were very difficult to negotiate. Finally, the organic farming sector and its representatives, engaged in trench warfare against the Commission since the beginning of the reform process, would lose all credibility vis-à-vis European institutions with this unfortunate episode and would thus be deprived of the possibility of having a meaningful influence on the reform of the CAP.
The issue of seeds available for organic farming and the biodiversity promoted by this agronomic model is among the topics that have been subject of the longest and most heated negotiations.
Indeed, rules on the marketing of seeds come under separate European legislation, made up of 12 directives, and are competence of the Directorate General for Health and Food Safety. The Parliament had great difficulty in getting the Commission to accept that adjustments to this legislation were essential in the body of the Organic Regulation.
Furthermore, organic agriculture is currently dealing with varieties that have been bred for the specific needs and technical conditions of conventional agriculture. Seeds of these varieties become subsequently “organic” because they are multiplied under organic management during one generation only. This multiplication process happens when the breeding program is already over. The genetics of plants is therefore not adapted to organic agriculture, and yields are consequently 50% lower, on average, on organic farms than on conventional holdings. These “organic” seeds are insufficient, both in terms of quantity and of available varieties. That situation leads to systematic derogations, allowing organic farmers to use non-organic seeds. However, the obligation to use organic seeds was introduced in the organic regulation in 1995 , and nothing has been done, at the regulatory level, to make the application of mandatory use of organic seeds possible for organic farmers.
These long-lasting problems have found a solution in the final compromise.
Indeed, the new Regulation introduces two new categories of “varieties” available for organic agriculture: “organic heterogeneous material”, which corresponds essentially to the traditional varieties actually forbidden for sale through the effect of the “official catalogue” and its registration criteria, and “organic varieties suitable for organic production”, coming from breeding programs specifically adapted to the needs and constraints of organic farming.
“Organic heterogeneous material” will be allowed to be put on the market following a simple prior notification, taking the form of a dossier presenting the characteristics of the material to the competent authority, which will have 3 months to raise observations on the completeness or not of the dossier. After this deadline, the dossier shall be implicitly acknowledged and the material will be allowed to reach the market.
“Organic varieties suitable for organic production” could also be released for sale under derogatory conditions, which will be laid down by the Commission in the framework of a “temporary experiment” of 7 years, aiming to evaluate the characteristics of these new varieties and to subsequently adapt the horizontal legislation on the marketing of seeds.
The new categories will not displace currently available hybrid F1 varieties, but will usefully complete the actual seed offer.
These provisions, after 22 years of widespread use of non-organic seeds, will allow to better respond to the fundamental principles of organic farming (high level of biodiversity) and to the obligations contained in organic production rules (seeds of organic quality), but also to offer organic farmers much better adapted material to their agronomical needs.
The compromise also expressly authorises organic farmers to reproduce and use their own seeds, as long as they wouldn’t belong to non-protected varieties.
These provisions constitute a remarkable step forward, both for organic production and for seed biodiversity in general.
Those who oppose to the compromise that will be put on the table on 20 November, rather than stay focused on the points of disagreement, should better look up and, with a global perspective, ask themselves what could be gained and what could be lost in case of rejection.Dominique Ostyn