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Commission proposals for new rules for organic farming

25 March 2014
by eub2 -- last modified 26 March 2014

The European Commission has published new proposals for a new Regulation on organic production and the labelling of organic products. Consumer and producer concerns are at the heart of this new proposal, which seeks to address shortcomings of the current system. The EU organic market has quadrupled in size over the last 10 years and rules need to be updated and adjusted so that the sector can further develop and respond to future challenges.


What is organic production and how does it fit in the Common Agricultural Policy?

Organic production is a system of farm management and food production that combines best environmental practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources and the application of high production standards in line with the demand of a growing number of consumers for products produced using natural substances and processes. Organic production thus plays a dual societal role, where it, on the one hand, provides for a specific market responding to consumer demand for organic products and, on the other hand, delivers publicly available goods contributing to the protection of the environment, as well as to rural development.

The EU's organic scheme is part of the Union's agricultural product quality schemes, which include geographical indications and traditional specialities guaranteed. Compliance with high health and environmental standards in the production of organic products is intrinsic to the high quality of those products.

Measures financially supporting organic production have been introduced under the CAP, most recently under Regulation (EU) No 1307/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council, and in particular strengthened in the recent reform of the legal framework for rural development policy as established by Regulation (EU) No 1305/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council.

How important is organic production in the EU today?

Consumer spending on organic food products amounted to €20.9 in 2012 (and €19.7 billion in 2011). There are more than 186 000 organic farms across Europe, cultivating an area of 9.6 million hectares, i.e. 5.4% of the total agricultural area in the European Union (EU). Figures show that organic holdings are generally bigger than conventional farms in the EU and their managers are younger. Permanent pasture represents the biggest share of the organic area (about 45%), followed by cereals (around 15%) and permanent crops (about 13%). Besides poultry, which registers the highest number of animal organic heads, the rest of organic livestock is led by sheep (46%) and bovines (30%) at European level.

For background information on organic farming in the EU, see the info graphics "The EU organic (R)evolution" and the report "Facts and figures on organic agriculture in the European Union"

Why a reform of the current policy?

The overall objective of the EU political and legislative framework is the sustainable development of organic production. While the organic market has increased fourfold and organic farming in the EU is expected to develop in line with market developments, the EU organic land area has only doubled in the last 10 years. However, neither internal supply, nor the legislative framework have kept up with this market expansion. This risks limiting both the expansion of the organic market and the environmental benefits associated with organic farming. The main drivers associated to these risks are:

    regulatory and non-regulatory obstacles to the development of organic farming in the EU;

    a risk of erosion of consumer confidence, notably because organic production rules may be watered down and experience has shown shortcomings in the control system and in the trade regime,

    unfair competition among producers and risks for the functioning of the internal market, mainly because of differences in implementation and of enforcement failures.

Rules for producing organic – what will change?

Organic production must continue to adhere to a set of principles that reflect closely the expectations of consumers.

    Production rules will be strengthened and harmonised by removing various derogations and exceptions in the current rules. Sufficient transitional arrangements will be provided so that farmers can adapt to the new rules, for example on genetic input transitional measures will be provided for all organic farmers and  aquaculture producers (relating to seeds, livestock and fish juveniles)

    Organic agricultural holdings will have to be entirely managed in compliance with the requirements applicable to organic production and retroactive acknowledgement of the conversion period is not possible any more.

    Organic operators other than farmers, aquaculture or seaweed producers, will be required to develop a system for improving their environmental performance. Micro-enterprises will be exempted from this new requirement in line with the Commission's policy to reduce their regulatory burden as much as possible.

Last but not least, specific production rules are brought together in an Annex to the proposed Regulation, thus making the legislation easier to read and to understand.

Control systems – what will change?

The risk-based approach to official controls is reinforced by removing the requirement for a mandatory annual physical verification of compliance of all operators.

A system of group certification is introduced for small-scale farmers in the EU to reduce inspection and certification costs and the associated administrative burden, strengthen local networks, contribute to better market outlets, and ensure a level playing field with operators in third countries where group certification is allowed. This is intended to help and encourage more small farmers join the EU's organic scheme.

The proposal requires all operators along the organic chain to be submitted to the control system. Currently it is possible for certain retailers to be exempted from controls. This exemption is used very widely.

Specific provisions are introduced to increase transparency with regard to fees that may be collected for the controls, to enhance traceability and fraud prevention and to harmonise action to be taken when non-authorised products or substances are detected.

Lastly, the control system is improved by integrating all control-related provisions into a single legislative text under the Commission proposal for a Regulation on official controls and other official activities in food and feed.

Trade in organics – what will change?

The trade regime is adapted to improve the level playing field for the organic operators of the European Union and in Third Countries and to better ensure consumer confidence. The possibility of equivalence agreements with Third Countries remains, while the system of unilateral equivalency is phased out.

The recognition of control bodies is proposed to be progressively shifted to a compliance regime, meaning that imported products will have to comply with the single set of EU production rules.

Why a new Action Plan?

A new Action Plan is necessary to support the growth of the organic farming sector and the challenges of production and demand. Therefore, it is essential to guarantee the added value in terms of production and the credibility of the scheme for consumers. The Action Plan focuses on three priority domains: competitiveness of European organic producers, consolidation of consumer confidence in the European organic rules, and the reinforcement of the external dimension of EU organic production.

In the Action Plan, the Commission outlines 18 actions including:

  • Increasing information and synergies between the EU's policies such as the CAP, and Rural Development, and the school fruit and milk schemes.
  • Raising awareness of the EU logo and organic rules with instruments such as information and promotion and Green public procurement.
  • Strengthening research and innovation in relation to challenges in organic production rules.
  • Developing electronic certification to ensure greater traceability of organic products.
  • Improving coordination between accreditation and control authorities, as a means to make more effective controls.
  • Exploring at international level the possibility of a plurilateral agreement among leading organic partners.

Consultation process: who was involved?

The current situation was analysed in depth on the basis of the information collected during a series of stakeholder hearings to which the Commission invited over 70 experts and academics to provide data and advice, as well as to discuss fully the current and future challenges facing the organic sector.

The Commission launched an on-line consultation at the beginning of 2013. Around 45 000 replies were submitted in response to the questionnaire and almost 1 400 free contributions were received. The majority (96%) of responses were submitted by citizens of the European Union, while the remaining 4% were sent by stakeholders.

In addition, stakeholders of the sector were informed and consulted on the review in several meetings of the Advisory Group on Organic Farming and in numerous bilateral meetings with the Services of the European Commission.

Member States, as competent authorities in charge of implementing the legislation, were kept informed and were consulted on technical aspects of the review in particular on the administrative costs and burden resulting from the organic legislative framework.

What were the main outcomes of the consultations?

The respondents to the public consultation are concerned mainly with environmental and quality issues. They would like the European organic rules to be strengthened and wish to have uniformity of organic rules for farmers and other operators throughout the Union. Therefore the majority are in favour of putting an end to the exceptions to the rules.

High expectations were expressed as regards residues of products and substances that are not authorised for use in organic production. Consumers expect organic products to be free of pesticide residues.

The organic logo of the European Union was ranked equal to national logos as a means of recognising organic products.

The majority of citizens and stakeholders trust the organic control system while considering that it could be improved, mainly by introducing electronic certification.

They are also in favour of group certification for small farmers.

The need to improve the legislation on organic production is widely acknowledged in the organic sector. There is also broad agreement that organic production should remain close to its principles and objectives and that exceptions to the rules should be ended.

What were the conclusions of the Impact Assessment study?

The impact assessment concluded that the preferred option for the future EU organic policy framework was the so-called principle-driven option. This option aims at re-focussing organic production on its basic principles and objectives of contributing to the integration of environmental protection requirements into the CAP, and promoting sustainable agricultural production.

In addition, particular attention has been paid to simplification during the whole process. The preferred option will:

  • clarify the provisions on scope, production rules, labelling and controls,
  • remove ineffective provisions,
  • limit the MS' scope for granting exceptions to the rules,
  • simplify the import regime,
  • simplify requirements for small farmers, in particular with the introduction of group certification.

More information

    Organic farming website