Brussels briefing: EU residue rules could 'punish' organic farmers
Published 24/08/2016 | 02:30
EU negotiators and farmers' groups are gearing up for an organic food fight.
This autumn will see a last-ditch effort to save draft rules for the fast-growing organic food industry, which have been bogged down by legal and political wrangling since they were tabled more than two years ago.
The share of organic land in the EU has not kept up with the market for organic products, which has quadrupled in the last 10 years, according to the European Commission.
It wants to update a 2007 law to make it easier to switch to organic farming, and to reassure consumers following organic food fraud scandals in Italy and beyond.
Ireland has one of the lowest shares of organic farming in the EU, with around 1pc of total agricultural land dedicated to organic farming, compared to an EU average of close to 6pc. Slovakia's agriculture ministry is pressing Ireland and other EU countries for feedback on the draft rules for a paper it is drawing up ahead of two key meetings at the end of September.
Negotiations broke off this spring after near-agreement was reached on fraud checks and the certification of organic products and imports, but divisions persist over how to deal with GMO and pesticide residues in organic food and feed.
The Commission wants to set strict limits on residues, which, if exceeded, would result in a farmer being stripped off his organic certification.
But farmers' groups - as well as MEPs and EU governments - oppose legal limits, saying most contamination occurs accidentally from neighbouring farms or during transport and storage.
The EU organics association, IFOAM, says the rules would "wrongfully punish" organic farmers for events outside their control, and farmers fear being struck off the organics register would cause irreparable damage to their reputation and a litany of court cases.
The Commission and MEPs are also fighting over who should have the final say in drawing up technical standards to implement the law in a legal power grab that threatens to torpedo the whole process.
"Now the discussion is mostly focused on [legal] structure," says Slovak agricultural attaché Matej Hudek. "The European Parliament wants to show its muscle and be able to influence [the rules]."
A Commission spokesman said the institution was "not dogmatic" on the issue and was looking for a "pragmatic solution" so that negotiations can resume at the end of September.
But a source close to agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan said the Commission would "place a greater emphasis on content over speed".
The Slovaks, who took over the EU's rotating presidency in July, hope to have an issues paper ready by the end of August, but the real test of whether an agreement can be found will come on September 26, when agricultural attachés meet to discuss the issue.
The Commission can ultimately withdraw the proposal if an agreement proves fruitless - which many farmers' groups would welcome - but remains reluctant to do so.
NO WORD ON BEEF MERGER
Brussels is keeping quiet about the proposed merger between beef magnate Larry Goodman’s ABP Food Group and meat processor Slaney Foods.
The merger, which will have to be examined by EU authorities, sparked a public spat this week after the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) hit out at the “level of Goodman control of the beef sector”.
The IFA has sent a report to the European Commission expressing concerns about the merger, which it says “is likely to weaken competition even further” in the sector.
The row broke out after ABP decided to stop automatically collecting a special levy from farmers that makes up 35pc of the IFA’s income.
The levy, known as the European Involvement Fund (EIF), goes towards the IFA’s European and international lobbying efforts and was worth ¤4.7m to the farmers’ group last year.
The ABP/Slaney joint venture, which would see ABP Foods take a 50pc stake in Slaney Foods, would give the combined entity a share of more than 27pc of the beef processing sector in Ireland. A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture said the proposed tie-up is “a matter for the European Commission”.