Organic farming – update on the evolution of EU regulations and implications for third countries

After several years of intense negotiations, on 28 June 2017 the European Parliament reached a preliminary agreement to overhaul the existing EU rules on organic production and labelling. The stated aim of the regulations is to encourage the sustainable development of organic production in the EU, to guarantee fair competition for farmers and operators, prevent fraud and unfair practices, and improve consumer confidence in organic products.

The text for the new regulation was adopted by the EU Parliament in April 2018, and by the Council in May 2018. It will apply from 1 January 2021, and in the meantime a series of delegated and implementing acts will be introduced.

The current rules are in many cases more than 20 years old, and an update was needed to reflect the changes that have taken place in the EU organic sector over the past two decades. It was considered that the “patchwork of rules and derogations currently in place do not give sufficient certainty and security to this highly important sector of European agriculture, and the simpler, more harmonised approach of the new Regulation should help it grow even faster as a result”. (europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-17-4686_en.htm)

The focus of the new regulation is EU organic agriculture, but it also has important implications for imports from third countries. Most importantly, it moves from the principle of equivalence to the principle of conformity.

Until now, imported products have been certified either (1) according to the national standards of countries with rules that are recognised as equivalent to the EU organic rules; or (2) according to rules from control bodies that the EU has recognised as equivalent. In future, producers in third countries will have to comply with the same set of rules as those in the EU. This, it is argued, will create a level playing field for all producers, as everyone will have to comply with the same high standards. It will also reassure consumers that all organic products sold in the EU meet the same quality standards.

IFOAM EU recognises two systems for importing organic products from outside the EU under the new regulation.

  • Trade agreements: all third countries currently recognised as equivalent will have to renegotiate the terms of trade agreements under the new EU procedure. 
  • Certification bodies: in the absence of a trade agreement, the Commission will establish a list of recognised inspection bodies/authorities that will be authorised to carry out inspections and certifications in third countries. (www.ifoam-eu.org/en/news/2018/06/15/new-eu-organic-regulation-what-will-change)

The new EU regulation will be implemented in the same way both within and outside the EU. Some flexibility will be allowed for the use of plant protection products and/or fertilisers traditionally used in third countries. However, overall, the new regulation may be less flexible in its ability to take into account specific conditions and situations (e.g. diseases) for which there are no Community rules. This could have a greater impact in tropical and developing countries, where agro-ecological and socio-economic diversity is greater.