The two-day conference of the IFOAM EU group in Brussels, that attracted a record 270 participants, concluded on 5 December 2007. The aim of the highly successful conference was to discuss the future strategy for implementing organic agriculture in Europe. Various departments of the EU Commission were invited, and a number of officials from the EU administration were clearly impressed by the event, welcoming further proposals and collaboration with the umbrella organisation of organic movements worldwide.
The Commissioner for Agriculture Mrs Fischer-Boel announced that the new EU organic logo will be presented by the end of the year. The battle cry of the representatives from many of the EU member states was zero tolerance regarding genetically modified organisms (GMO). At the conference, around 80 lectures were given by experts and were attended by people interested in the various topics. There was a high level of consensus in respect of organic agriculture, but on the subject of GMO and bio-fuels opinions were divided.
Representing the EU Commission, officials from the Directorates-General for Agriculture, Research and the Environment attended, and they followed the lectures and discussions very closely. They expressed the position of the Commission on several panels and in working groups. Representing the Directorate-General for Agriculture, Julien Mousnier emphasised that there was strong support in the Commission for organic agriculture: “We are very pleased with the way we are working together with IFOAM.” He predicted a very bright future for organic agriculture, which it was a duty to work together to achieve. Timothy Hall, also from the Directorate-General for Agriculture, added that ideas and suggestions from the organic industry would continue to be welcome. His recommendation: “But please make sure that they are supported by the majority of the industry.” Hannes Lorenzen from the Green Party in the EU Parliament encouraged active participation in all the processes of the EU. There was also an obligation to combat unfair competition from countries that did not adhere to any ecological or social standards. He suggested this could be done by, for example, import levies.
The Green Party MEP, Friedrich Wilhelm Gräfe zu Baringdorf , demanded that food from outside the EU should not be used as a ‘strike breaker’ in order to lower the prices of producers in Europe. Instead of promoting the research of private GM companies, The EU Commission should expand organic research for the benefit of all people. Timothy Hall stressed that the Commission was already supporting a number of organic projects, the biggest being the QLIF Project (14 million Euros).
Arguments for and against GMO were debated. Helen Holder (picture on left) from Friends of the Earth made a passionate contribution, providing figures and arguments in favour of zero tolerance regarding GMO.
Whilst the audience – organic representatives from practically every EU country and adjacent states like Croatia and White Russia – similarly demanded zero tolerance in various forums, the representatives of the Commission presented the current regulation regarding mandatory distance between GMO and non-GMO fields, authorisation procedures and the 0.9 % regulation. They said they had to consider the interests of all the member countries and they advocated the compromise that has been law for some years now. Ladislav Milko, as Head of the Directorate-General for the Environment, was also unwilling to come down on any one side. He called for further research into the effects of GM agricultural practices before they could reach a final conclusion.
Benny Härlin, from the action group “Save our Seeds” demanded real confrontation with the EU institutions in the coming years to ensure that the whole of Europe remained free of GMO.
Mariann Fischer-Boel, the Danish EU Commissioner for Agriculture , came to the opening of the IFOAM Congress. In her speech, she made clear what she expected from the conference – more information about the special benefits of organic agriculture in terms of alleviating climate change and the maintenance of biodiversity. She praised the progress made by the organic industry and spoke about the boom in some of the accession states. Regarding the new EU Organic Regulation, she said: “We did reach an agreement.” The principles had been clearly laid down, and a solutionhad been found for wine, aquaculture and seaweed. “A huge piece of work is now behind
us,” she added. She hoped that the organic industry would continue to grow: “Development is being driven by the fact that society is focusing more and more on environmental issues.” In the evening before the conference opened, a top level colleague of Mrs Fischer Boel, Dormal Marino (on the right in the picture next to Francis Blake), joined the IFOAM EU Group for drinks. About 50 people taking part in the conference crowded into the four IFOAM offices and took great pleasure in sampling the French wines on offer.
In his detailed lecture, Ladislav Miko, responsible for nature conservation and environmental protection in the Directorate-General for Environment, emphasised the benefits of organic agriculture . Tamas Marghescu from the nature conservation organisation IUCN pointed out in his contribution that around half of the excess of CO2 in the atmosphere could be bound up in the soil if there was a wide-scale conversion to organic agriculture. “Nature conservation and biodiversity, that are additional benefits derived from organic agriculture, should feature much more prominently in public discussions in the future.”
A large number of talks were held in the five different working groups. The issues presented ranged from creating policy for organic agriculture, supporting research and trade ethics to the new EU Organic Regulation. GMO was a topic that attracted particular attention. Andrea Ferrante from the Italian Organic Association AIAB reported that the whole of Italy was virtually free of GMO. Because the Farmers’ Association Coldiretti, whose influence reached into every village, had declared its opposition to GMO, and because many regions had joined the anti-GMO movement, the controversial technology would not be used. Austria has a law that guarantees that seed is free of GMO.
The Chairman of the Soil Association, Patrick Holden, focused on the topic of energy. He said that when oil reaches its tipping point, it will totally disrupt all the energy-dependent market economies. It was quite possible that that point would be reached in three years, when half of all available oil had been used up. “Escalating energy prices are forcing the world to think about sustainable agriculture,” he said. In his view, the moment has come to convert to low-energy farming methods. He was definitely against the use of bio-fuels. “Bio-fuels are a catastrophe because they create competition with food crops for land, and they are causing rainforests to be chopped down.” He expressed these views during a panel discussion (picture) that was followed by a gala dinner. His views are in clear contradiction to the views of the EU Commission on bio-fuels. The Commissioner for Agriculture said that bio-fuels could contribute to solving the problem of climate change, “if they were correctly implemented.”
Nicolas Lampkin, from the organic agriculture centre in Wales, asked for organic agriculture to be included in the so-called first pillar of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), instead of being only in the second pillar that attracted much less funding. Francis Blake, Chairman of the IFOAM EU Group, said at the conclusion of the very successful conference that, although there were still topics to be discussed, organic agriculture could demonstrate great success. “We have already reached the top of the hill, from which we can see the mountains that we still have to scale.”
Further information on the IFOAM internetsite:Download of some of the presentations